September 12, 2011

Tales of Two Nurseries

There are times when I fear for the future because it may not include places like Tranquil Lake or Weston Nurseries.  Instead, we’ll buy specialty plant over the internet and everything else at big box stores.  If that happens, we’ll be poorer for the change. 

No – not just poorer, impoverished.  Here’s why:

Back in July, I went to Tranquil Lake’s ‘Garden Day’, a festive extravaganza that offers superb speakers and gardening advice, all set among the nursery’s stunning fields of daylilies (in full bloom, naturally) and iris.  You meet a lot of fellow gardeners at the event and pick up a wealth of knowledge.  And, you do it under the aegis of an organization that is hosting the event because it is good for business (true to that theory, I always walk out with a car full of plants).  It is 62 miles round trip from my home to Rehoboth, Massachusetts, a fact that speaks volumes about the quality of the plant material and the expertise that comes with every purchase.

Henry Schmidt, in the green shirt at
left, led a group of 30 through the
display gardens at Weston Nurseries
this past weekend.
But in speaking with co-owner Warren Leach this year, I heard the unsettling news that the event may be in jeopardy, at least in its existing form.  The reason is declining attendance and rising costs.  I saw a field full of cars when I arrived at noon but Warren reminded me that as recently as five years ago the event drew more than a thousand people. Whether the lower attendance is economy related or a change in the ‘macro’ environment is a subject for debate but I accept Warren’s concern that the event needs to cover its considerable costs through higher sales.

One element of the expense side, he explained, is that Tranquil Lake owns the smaller tents used for purposes like a Master Gardener information table but has to rent the large ones that house speakers.  If it continues, the event may do so in a scaled-back form.  In the meantime, I’m pleased to see that Tranquil Lake’s Fall Festival – another full day of gardening talks – is being held on October 1.

Weston Nurseries has a different problem.  For years, their ‘Weston Days’ kept getting increasingly fancy and with lavish goodies for participants (see ‘The Siren Call of the Garden Center Special, September 30, 2010).  And, I kept succumbing to their blandishments.  This year, the event was quite subdued.  When I asked why, I was told that the event was a victim of word of mouth.  Customers came but, last year something else happened: every Council on Aging in eastern Massachusetts sent busloads of seniors to Hopkinton, where they had chowed down on corn, pizza and ice cream, and purchased exactly nothing.  Success is clearly not always measured by headcount.

The hike included a stop at Weston owner Wayne
Mezitt's garden, which contains a cornucopia of both mature
specimen trees planted by Weston founder Peter Mezitt
and unusual cultivars collected by Wayne in his travels.
I write this because I was at Weston Nurseries twice this past weekend.  The first time was strictly as Volunteer with a Pickup Truck.  Betty had designed a new entry garden for our town’s historical society; I was charged with picking up the ten shrubs that comprise the garden plus nine bags of compost to augment the site’s depleted soil.

Because the plant material was purchased over the phone by a member of the historical society, Betty asked that I have someone at Weston check the quality of the plants.  I asked at the sales desk and no less an authority than Henry Patt came out and spent ten minutes inspecting buds and root balls.  It was one of those moments that make a lasting impression: a customer with a rather modest order asks if he is getting the best stock available.  A guy with more than a quarter century’s experience in such matters takes the time to genuinely look at the material and render an honest evaluation.  Don’t try this at Lowe’s.

Yesterday, Betty and I were back at Weston, this time for a nearly-two-hour-long walk of Weston’s property.  It was led by Henry Schmidt, who says he has worked at Weston since college, and I would imagine that Henry is coming up on his fifty-year college reunion.  A group of 30 started at a patio with coffee and cookies at 10 a.m.  We needed it; we climbed hills and threaded our way single-file through narrow paths.  We did this in order to see all of Weston’s display gardens. 

Here is my ignorance on display: I have been buying stuff at Weston Nurseries for three decades and I did not know that they had display gardens.  Not only do they have them, they’re mature display gardens, most of them planted in the 1940s when Weston first acquired its Hopkinton property.  Worse, most of the gardens are right there in front of you.  They’re beautiful.  They feature specimens that inspire.  They’re also cautionary tales:  ‘dwarf’ has a different meaning in the plant world.  A human ‘dwarf’ grows to ‘x’ height and stops.  A plant ‘dwarf’ grows more slowly than its non-dwarf cousin.  An 50-foof dwarf Atlantic pine is not an oxymoron.

The walk also featured a rare treat, a walk through owner Wayne Mezitt’s garden (which, in turn, was started by Wayne’s father, founder Peter Mezitt).  The garden shows both the grace of mature plantings and a collector’s eye for the rare and unusual.  ‘Breathtaking’ is not an inappropriate word.

This was not some press junket.  Word of its availability went out via Weston’s e-newsletter and the first 30 people to sign up for each of the two walks got on the list.  And, ultimately, it was a sales tool, though one superbly presented.  We ended up in the plant lot where many of the exotic and unusual specimens we had seen were for sale. 

We didn’t buy anything on Sunday, but we made a lot of notes about things that we liked.  First, we have to find room for them.  Then, we’ll buy them.  You can be certain those purchases won’t be from Home Depot.


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  2. Enjoying all of your postings, Neal. Especially glad to see your support of Weston Nurseries and other area merchants and events. Although "big box" stores serve a purpose, i.e. convenience I guess, I wish we could all make the effort to trade with local, individual business owners to help them survive. I generally find someone who actually cares about their customers, provides better quality products and service - and perhaps I have made a new friend!