By Keysha Drexel
Libby Rich might be closing up shop after 40 years in business, but that doesn’t mean the plant lover is hanging up her gardening tools.
Libby, the owner of Plant Odyssey in Lakeview, said she plans to close the business in the next few months and retire to a simpler life.
“I’ve been in business for 38 years, but I no longer want to be the owner of a small business,” she said. “I want to garden in my own yard. I want play with my dogs. I need time to retreat and regroup, and you can’t do that while operating a small business.”
Libby said she has very mixed emotions about closing the shop she ran with her late husband, Joe Ethridge. Joe passed away last year, and losing her husband of 26 years changed Libby forever, she said.
“I haven’t handled his death very well. It changed me irreparably. I have loved what I’ve done (at Plant Odyssey), but now I am going to take time to reflect and to think. I am choosing quiet,” Libby said.
Quiet is not really the word most of her friends and clients would probably use to describe her, the 63-year-old said with a laugh.
Libby said she’s grateful she’s been able to make a living doing something she’s passionate about and thankful the community accepted how she acted on that passion.
“My community has accepted me for being brutally frank and outspoken. I can be short,” she said.
Libby said her customers have even given her a nickname because of her fervent way of doling out advice on growing plants in the Birmingham area.
“They call me the Plant Nazi, and it’s a well-deserved nickname,” she said. “I have a desire to teach people how easy it is to be successful at gardening while not hesitating to say it when what you’re doing is wrong.”
No matter how Libby’s advice is delivered, her customers say it’s the gold standard for gardeners across the metro area.
“She’s an institution in the Birmingham area,” said Kathy Wells, an Over the Mountain resident and 20-year Plant Odyssey customer.
Kathy said everyone from beginning gardeners to professional green thumbs counts on Libby’s knowledge and experience.
“Everyone you talk to about gardening knows she’s the expert. Libby and her store have been such an integral part of the community,” Kathy said.
Libby said she was a late bloomer when it came to discovering her life’s passion.
“I didn’t discover my passion for plants until I was 23. At that point, I had been fired from every job I held,” she said.
So Libby toyed with the idea of going into business herself.
A voracious reader who had been devouring books since the age of 3, Libby first considered opening a bookstore, she said.
“That was my first idea–a bookstore. But I couldn’t get enough money together for that. We were raising plants and started selling them out of our backyard. That’s how we got the money to open Plant Odyssey,” Libby said.
Libby said her love of gardening and plants is something she inherited from her family.
“I had a great-grandfather that was a fabulous gardener. My grandfather loved vegetable gardening,” she said. “My father always, always had an avocado plant around, and I still have plants that were my father’s on my windowsill.”
Growing up in Birmingham, Libby always relished her time out in nature, she said.
“I was fortunate because our father took us camping in 38 different states and gave us an appreciation of nature and of the earth. Every weekend we were in the woods, observing and appreciating,” she said. “I always thanked my father for exposing us to the woods, the water, to nature.”
Libby said she has learned a lot about plants and gardening through her 38 years at Plant Odyssey.
“I would always look at a plant list and want all of it, and because I was willing to put my money in inventory, I got to work with plants that I knew nothing about and could learn about,” she said.
Libby said she has learned to nurture her own thirst for knowledge as she learned to take care of plants.
“I think I am gifted with plants the way other people are gifted at the piano or at painting or music and, like with any gift, you have to nurture it. So I’ve always tried to observe, ask lots of questions and experience as much as I can,” she said.
Libby said she thinks anyone can learn what she calls the secret language of plants.
“Plants are great teachers. They have their own language that most of us can’t hear, but if you learn to listen to it, you can learn a lot,” she said.
Libby said she is not sure how much longer the doors at Plant Odyssey will be open and said she knows she will miss her customers and friends.
“I didn’t realize how much stuff I had until I starting making plans to close. There’s no telling how long it will take me to get it all done,” she said. “I will certainly miss the people, the warmth that has been extended to me, the affection, the trust.”
Libby said she will head into the next chapter of her life happy in the knowledge that what she did might have made a difference.
“I’m so very proud of the fact that people came to me and trusted me to never sell the wrong plant or give them the wrong advice. I retire knowing I have made a contribution, and I could ask for nothing more,” she said.