For Kurt LeBlanc, co-owner of Harold's Plants (1135 Press St., 504-947-7554; www.haroldsplants.com), the Bywater garden and nursery is more than just a place to work — it's his home away from home. Tucked away near the Press Street railroad tracks, the path to the store leads from a bustling hub of traffic sounds and street life to what he calls the "oasis" — a pavilion surrounded by trickling fountains, garden pottery and flourishing plant life.
"People love coming out here," LeBlanc says of the store, which has been open for the past 12 years. "I always feel like I'm going to my garden away from home. Our customers say that, too."
The store shares the name of its first owner, Harold Applewhite, who has been in the plant business for 30 years. While the garden haven still sells all the old favorites (up to 300 orchids a week, as well as more than 500 types of trees and a few thousand shrubs), the store continues to expand year by year, LeBlanc says.
And that is why he was brought into the business.
"Harold was gracious enough to take me in about two years ago and just help him build the business and branch it out," LeBlanc says. "And the place keeps on trucking. Every year we add a little bit."
The pavilion space, where customers can browse outdoors without getting wet in the rain, is a recent addition. LeBlanc says the owners have "maxed out" the property, too, with a collection of native and exotic plants that includes salvias, azaleas, nearly 50 different types of hydrangeas and plumerias 10 feet high.
Tropical plants, Australian tree ferns and a wide selection of herbs also fill the bustling space, as do trellises, canopies and Virgin Mary statuettes.
Those options have attracted a loyal following of customers ranging from landscape artists to small-time gardeners. They travel to the Bywater shop from as far away as Lakeview, Uptown and Metairie — a testament to its success, LeBlanc says.
"Our clientele is so broad, and we're thrilled about it," LeBlanc says. "People can stop anywhere along the way for plants and flowers. But they choose to come here."
LeBlanc says the store serves as a smeeting place for some friends who stop in for conversation and a plant or two or to get a break from the outside world. The store is a "little garden center," he adds. Ultimately, LeBlanc hopes to add a coffeeshop under the pavilion.
"It's a great place to have a cup of coffee and chat," he says. "A cafe in the middle of a garden setting — that's what I'm hoping for."
LeBlanc is quick to add that he doesn't want to modernize too much. He knows his loyal customers love the homey setting, complete with classical music and the nursery's adopted kittens, which hang out with the orchids.
It combines to make an inviting setting. "The environment is why our customers tend to linger," LeBlanc says.