Local garden centers shutter as economy slides

Down to Earth owner Danny Berler helps Ruby Scheers (left) and Betty Burn shop at his Coleman Boulevard garden center, which is closing its doors later this month.

MOUNT PLEASANT — Danny Berler can almost pinpoint the day in May when business at his Down to Earth gardening center began to wilt.

"Gas prices started going toward $4 a gallon, and customers just stopped coming," he said Wednesday.

Two years after sinking his life savings and everything he owned into the upscale garden center on Coleman Boulevard, the former transportation planner will hang up his closed sign for good on Nov. 22.

He's not the only one.

Across town, a fixture of the gardening business for decades is withering away, as well.

"Going out of business" signs have sprouted along Bowman Road at The Secret Garden Center, marked by a familiar old red Chevrolet truck with plants growing out of its popped-up hood.

"Forty percent off," some signs read. "Everything must be sold."

With one employee remaining other than owner Richard Ellis, the quaint gardening shop that has changed owners and names multiple times since 1972 will water its last plant Nov. 30.

"Business just absolutely fell off a cliff," Ellis said. "Year over year, we were down 70 percent. We had a fairly slow spring, and it's just been falling ever since. It's tragic. Where normally we have a thousand-dollar day we have been doing $15. It's just been unimaginable."

Ellis acquired the business a little more than two years ago when it was called Plantin' Thyme, and he once had six employees. But the economy has taken its toll as customers didn't show up.

Secret Garden employee Kathy DuPuis, who has worked in the horticulture business for about 30 years, said it's a sad time in the gardening business.

In addition to her Secret Garden job, DuPuis still maintains a few private gardens for clients in downtown Charleston and plans to return to doing more of that. "I'm glad I kept some of them," she said.

Down to Earth spent the summer lining up new product mixes and reducing some prices, but foot traffic skidded in September, when the global financial crisis began to spread, Berler said.

He said he hung on as long as he could, but finally made the decision to hang out his "Going out of business" sign Tuesday at noon. Everything is 50 percent off.

"We've had more customers in the last 24 hours than in the past six months," Berler said. "It's insane. People have just come in and gone crazy. These shelves were full yesterday, and now you can see all the way across them."

The decision was not easy, said Berler, thinking of his own loss and the loss of jobs for the six employees he has left. He once had 17 on his payroll.

"I had no reason to believe anything would change anytime soon despite my excitement with the new administration (in Washington)," he said.

The economic downturn has dug into other gardening businesses, as well.

Bruce Donaldson, owner of the Abide-A-While Garden Center on U.S. Highway 17, said business is good, but he recently decided he had to start opening on Sunday afternoons, something the 51-year-old Mount Pleasant nursery only did in the spring.

"The economics have forced us to open seven days a week," he said. "It's necessary. There are folks who just want you to be open on Sunday."

In West Ashley, longtime plant and garden supply store Cross Seed Co. faces an uncertain future. The 55-year-old store could be sold or it might just go the way of Down to Earth and Secret Garden, store manager Laurie Crosby said.

"It's a sad thing," said Crosby, who has worked at Cross Seed for 26 years. "We have been here so long."

The St. Andrews Boulevard store has stopped receiving new merchandise.

"After June, we noticed a sales change," Crosby said. "Gardening supplies aren't a necessity for most people. You will probably see a little bit more (closings.)"

Cross Seed is owned by Jeffrey's Seed Co. in Goldsboro, N.C., which recently closed another store in Wilmington, N.C., Crosby said.

Jeffrey's Seed officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Despite his decision to close, Berler has not canceled Down to Earth's two-year customer appreciation party from 5 to 7 p.m. today at the garden center.

"We had great customers, and we're very grateful for them," he said. "The party is still on."