May 9, 2013

Goodbye, Old Friend

Thirty-two years ago, the Boston metropolitan area was very different than it is today.  With a handful of exceptions, ‘civilization’ ended a few miles outside of Route 128.  Beyond ‘civilization’ was a collection of small towns reached by country roads. Those towns, in turn, dated back to the colonial era. 
Carlisle, Massachusetts
in 1875.  A hundred years
later, it had changed little.
And, land was inexpensive.  Out near Route 495, you could purchase five acres, drill a well for water, put in a septic tank for sewage, and have a home in the country.  Boston was an hour or so away when you needed to go into ‘the city’.
Carlisle, Massachusetts was one of those little towns.  In 1980, it has a population of 3,306 spread out over 15.5 square miles.  Leo Blanchette took five acres and built something much better than a home.  He built a nursery.  And, not your run-of-the-mill garden center kind of nursery; he created a destination.  He specialized in hostas and epimediums and daylilies; and then added things he got interested in: hard-to-grow things and hard-to-find things.
In a few years, Blanchette Gardens had become a ‘destination’ for plant aficionados.  Open from May to October, it was a Holy Place where you went and discovered a plant or cultivar you had never heard of or only read about in an obscure book.  Leo would have found that plant a few years earlier, purchased one, and then started propagating it until he a) had made certain it would grow in New England and b) he had enough of them to sell. 
Blanchette Gardens - thousands of plants from which to
choose, all grown at the nursery
Sell plants he did.  He put up screens to provide shade for the hostas and epimediums, so that Blanchette’s was a great place to be on even the hottest days of summer.  If you picked up an unfamiliar plant or cultivar and brought it to him (he parked himself on a stool next to a small shed by the entrance), he would declaim the plant’s virtues and weaknesses without having to resort to a computer or a book.  Leo made it his business to know every plant in his inventory.
Need information on a plant you've
never heard of?  It's right there.
For a nursery selling the rare and exotic, Blanchette never charged what the market would bear.  There were a few corners of the garden where prices above $25 could be found but most plants were $7.95 and $8.95. 
But times change.  Boston’s technology and financial industries exploded and a new-money elite went in search of quaint, country estates where they could be squires.  Carlisle was ground zero for that demographic shift.  By 2010, the town’s population had risen slightly to 4,852.  But its average household income soared to $244,544, the third highest in the state, behind only Weston and Dover; two other sparsely settled ‘country’ towns bypassed by anything as vulgar as a shopping center or supermarket.
That's Leo on the left.
In April, Blanchette Gardens announced that the 2013 season would be its last.  Leo is approaching 65 and wants to retire.  His kids aren’t interested in the business and he isn’t going to force it on them.  The value of Blanchette Gardens in inextricably linked to the land it occupies.  No one who would want to operate it as a nursery can pay what the land is worth, and no one who can pay what the land is worth is interested in running a nursery.
We were at Blanchette Gardens this past weekend.  The place was crowded and we saw many people we knew; fellow plant lovers.  They were drawn by the 25% discount on everything in stock but also by a need to say goodbye.  Leo will keep the place open until everything is gone.  Based on what I saw this weekend, that could be as early as June.
There are no villains in this story.  A nursery that was a godsend to serious gardeners is closing its doors.  It wasn’t done in by the Big Box Stores or by greed.  An owner aged and elected to retire.  The value of the land under the business makes maintaining it as a nursery uneconomic.  In all likelihood, by this time next year the land will have been sold.  In two years, the site will sport a grand home.
But I will remember Blanchette’s and Leo’s enthusiasm for everything he sold.  The world of horticulture will be a little poorer for the loss of his dedication to the joy of growing the unusual.


  1. The opposite happened here in Georgetown this week. At our annual town meeting, we voted to 'buy the title's licensure' as agricultural land on an 18 acre parcel that has been family-farmed for the past 45+ years ... guaranteeing that the land's title will be held in perpetuity as agricultural, no matter who owns it, and the owners of the future will have three choices: farm it themselves, hire a farmer to farm it, or maintain it in farmable condition. Happy outcomes for the farmer and the town.

  2. This was sad, Neal. But I'm sure some of those wonderful plants will bring back happy memories!

  3. I was just at Blanchette's today and brought along my new-homeowner son who will only have one season with this wonderful place. We are so lucky to have been able to learn from Leo.

  4. Joe TerranovaMay 17, 2013

    Before Leo started his business, he was a science teacher and a track and field coach. I had the honor of being one of his students and one of his athletes. He brought the same level of passion, knowledge and dedication to teaching and coaching that he brings to his current profession. He was a mentor and a friend. I wish him and his family many years of happiness in retirement.

  5. This seems like such a loss to me. Loss of their expert horticultural and gardening knowledge and loss of their propagation knowledge. Not to mention the loss of a wonderful place to go shopping for REAL plants that do REALLY well in our climate. Their plants were high quality, their prices were excellent. Will miss both Leo and Pam, and will miss being up front near the shed on the hour to hear all the clocks chiming. Many thanks and best wishes to them, hope they enjoy themselves on the many travels that lie ahead.