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Ruth LaHue: My Secret Garden

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“Beautiful flowers make life’s important moments better.”

Principles and elements of design are important, but for Ruth LaHue, founder and president of My Secret Garden at 823 E. Broadway, Columbia, nature should always have the upper hand in her floral designs. 

Her business grew organically as well. Ruth graduated from Albuquerque Floral Art School in 1974. She studied art, horticulture and science at the University of New Mexico and the University of Missouri and continues to study in the Sogetsu School of Ikebana, or Japanese floral design.

“After graduating from floral design school and as my seven younger sisters started getting married, each sister wanted me to do their wedding flowers,” Ruth described. “They all had big weddings with six or seven bridesmaids. Then all their bridesmaids wanted me to do their wedding flowers too. Each wedding led to more, and the business grew in the basement of my home.”

The personalized attention My Secret Garden provides each client has garnered the floral design shop recognition in numerous local publications, from the Columbia Chamber of Commerce as Small Retail Business of the Year and People’s Choice awards from UMC’s Museum of Art and Archeology for her creative designs in Art in Bloom.

HLM: When did My Secret Garden launch? Has it always been in the same space on the downtown strip?
RL: We began as a home-based business. My dad, a businessman, helped me get my sales tax number, as I was very busy doing weddings. My husband, Steve, built worktables in our basement and bought some old refrigerators. I would put my four children to bed, stay up all night and work on wedding flowers. I’d then get the children up and we would all go to the church to deliver the flowers together. 

After doing weddings from my home for ten years I had an opportunity to buy the lease option from a small flower shop where I had been working part time. This was not as easy as you would think. I went to the small business bureau at MU and they helped me put together a business plan. I then went to my bank to borrow the $10,000 I needed for a new sales tax bond, so I could start a new business with a storefront. Even though Steve and I owned our home and had always paid our bills, our bank turned me down for the loan. Our banker said, “Let me get this straight. You’ve been playing with flowers in your basement and now you want a loan?” 

I was determined and went to a different bank, and another and another. Finally, I went to Central Bank of Boone County, then Boone County Bank, and talked to Jill Cox. I remember her exact words after listening to my story. “Well, let me see how we can make this work.” She is still my banker today. I later learned that 1989 was the last year it was legal in Missouri to turn a woman down for a loan because she was a woman. Women were considered high risk. The next year the law was changed.

With the loan, I headed to Jefferson City to get my new sales tax number. Without the Internet, I had to drive there. The lady at the counter said, “You already have a tax number.” I told her that was for a business from my home and I was starting a new business with a storefront. She said, “Well, you’ve always paid your taxes. Why don’t you just use that number for your storefront and then you won’t have to pay for a bond.” I headed home to start my business with $10,000 to spend on something else. 

The hardest decision I had to make was what to name my business. That’s another story, but the name I chose, My Secret Garden, was one of my best marketing decisions. I used $8,000 of my loan to buy a 1956 red Chevy Nomad to deliver in for the first three years I was in business; that also turned out to be a very good marketing decision. I opened my storefront at 16 North Ninth Street in downtown and was there for 21 years. Ten years ago, I moved to my current location at 823 East Broadway. I think I’m in the most beautiful building in Columbia.

HLM: What sparked your interest in this industry?
RL: I was the only girl at Hickman High to graduate that year who had gotten married while she was still in high school. Steve and I then moved to Albuquerque so he could attend a carpentry school. We were going to live there a year to establish residency so he could attend. He found a job in a cabinetry shop. I couldn’t seem to find a job. Before I went to each interview, I would say a prayer that I would find the right job, so when I didn’t get the job I thought, “Well, that wasn’t the job for me.” But it was discouraging. 

Then one day on my way to a job interview I saw a sign reading Albuquerque Floral Art School. I had an epiphany and realized that was what I wanted to be. I had never even considered it as an occupation before. I said a prayer to God: “I want to be a florist and I know it would be a good job for me for three reasons. Number one, I’m very artistic and creative. Number two, I love plants and flowers. And number three, It would be something I could be doing every day that would make people happy.” I have a long story about how I got to attend the school with no money to pay for it. It all worked out and I must have asked God for the right reasons because I have never had to look for a job again. I still love being a florist today, all these years later.

HLM: Tell us about your family life. How do they tie in with your life-long florist passion?
RL: When I first started my business, I set up a priority list. My first priority was my husband. My second priority was my four children and my third priority was my business. 

I have always worked long, hard hours because flowers have to be put together at the last minute so they will be fresh. This has been a challenge for our family life. My husband owns North Face Concrete Construction and he works long hard hours, too. Our home was close to the shop and that helped. When the kids were small, I can remember Steve bringing them to the shop often with a pizza so we could spend a little time together. As they grew older, they have all worked for me. We are all naturally artistic, each one in our own distinctive and different way. We all love nature, flowers and beauty. Two of my daughters, Jessica and Stephanie, work with me now. 

Jessica recently left the corporate world where she was the director of operations for a national natural food store. She brings all kinds of business knowledge and creativity with her. She is a wonderful asset. I know I’m an excellent floral designer, but still, after 46 years in business, I feel like I’m learning how to run a business.  

Stephanie is my merchandising manager. She started her career as an adjunct professor at Stephens College in the fashion department. She taught the fashion show production class, visual merchandising, the internship class, modeling and taught her students in Italy and France in the summers. Then she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She could no longer keep up with her rigorous teaching schedule. The beautiful displays in our shop are inspired by Stephanie. I have always gardened with our family and a few years ago Stephanie started growing flowers for us to sell at the shop. It started because we couldn’t find flowers of the quality we expected from our wholesalers. She encouraged me to try some dahlias in my gardens, and now we both grow beautiful flowers in the summer for our shop. Multiple sclerosis is a horrible disease that Stephanie deals with every day. It has been a challenge not only for her but also for our business.  

My daughter Roberta, who has my two grandchildren, Ella and Jack, lives in Portland, Oregon. She is the nursing supervisor in a large hospital there. She still does wedding flowers on the side and has an amazingly beautiful garden for her yard. She has assisted me several times when I’ve done the flowers for large conferences out of town. 

My son, Zac, was working for his dad in the concrete business when I was hired to hire 20 florists to accompany 20 New York florists to do the flowers for a very large wedding. I asked him to help because I knew he would not only be very good with the flowers, but he was strong and I was going to need some muscles. The New York florist wanted to hire him when we finished the wedding. He didn’t go to New York, but he did decide to come to work for me and not go back to work with his dad. He worked for me for several years. We always participate in Art in Bloom, and Zac’s floral pieces received Best in Show twice. Today, Zac is a pilot in the army. He says he has been able to meet some very hard challenges in the army because of how hard we worked in the flower shop and because he has three big sisters. I am very proud of all of my children. 

My best friend is my husband of 47 years, Steve. He has been my truest supporter. Each morning we have coffee together and share our business and family concerns. We always part with a kiss. I am stronger because of his support. I dream up some awesome huge design and he helps me engineer a way to construct it or hang it or lift it. We make a great team. He jokingly says, “I’m her silent partner. I know when to be silent.” 

HLM: What’s the most inspiring aspect of what you do?
RL: There is a rhythm to the world. I try to catch that rhythm in my design. When you catch it, you can feel it. It’s like music only with color, and balance, form and line and beautiful, beautiful flowers. My approach to floral design is based on nature. I approach floral design as an art form, not a craft. I place the flower where IT wants to go and not try to make IT do what I want it to do. I always trust God is guiding me and if I happen to break a flower in the middle of making a design, I think God is telling me I was going to make a mistake. It always works better with the flower on a shorter stem. It’s wonderful to spend my day working with flowers and it’s something I can do to make people happy.

HLM: What are you most proud of in your career?
RL: I’m 66 years old and all of my dreams have come true. I wanted to walk my own path and not follow the trends of society. I’m doing what I love and have been graced with health so I can still do it. There are so many challenges but I trust tomorrow will be a better day.  

HLM: What has kept your love of floral so strong for over 40 years?
RL: I think I asked for this talent for the right reasons. I recognize it as a talent. I delight in the beauty of the work. But the one thing that keeps me here is the smile on my bride’s face when she sees her bouquet for the first time, the sparkle in the eye of the man who is picking up anniversary flowers for his sweetheart, the tear of gratitude from the spouse when I place flowers on the casket of their love, the bubbly giggles of girls picking up prom flowers. These moments happen over and over for me every day. I feel I am with people in their most important moments in life and beautiful flowers make those moments better.

HLM: What would you hope for My Secret Garden’s legacy?
RL: I chose to name my shop My Secret Garden and not The Secret Garden because I didn’t want the shop to be about me. I wanted it to be about the experience of receiving and giving flowers. When the customer is asked, “Where did you get these beautiful flowers?” their response would be, “From my secret garden.” It would be personal, like they have just found them in a secret garden somewhere. Flowers don’t last very long. They are just for the moment. The feelings they bring last a long time. I always say flowers last longer than a kiss and that is so important too. It’s hard to make a legacy out of a moment. I hope My Secret Garden has made all those loving moments brighter and more beautiful. I hope I have brought happiness to this little corner of the world.