June 21, 2013

Going Strong at 90

When Betty and I first came to New England in 1980, we purchased a still-being-built home for which landscaping did not rise even to the level of an afterthought.  We needed to learn about what kinds of trees and shrubs could survive in the deep pine forest out of which our new homestead had been carved.   In our first weeks, we heard about and visited a place called Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton. 
Weston turned out to be the answer to our needs.  It was – and still is – a source of freely offered and sound, professional advice about plants provided by a dedicated and long-serving staff.  We populated our three acres with Weston plant material and it thrived.  We stayed in that home ten years, then decamped for corporate opportunities, first in Connecticut and then in Virginia.  When we returned to New England in 1999, we again gravitated to Weston Nurseries for our landscaping needs, sometimes one or two plants at a time and sometimes in bulk.
A jazz band played at a
1920s-themed party
Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure to help Weston Nurseries celebrate its 90th birthday.  It is a remarkable achievement for any business to endure ninety years, much less to thrive.  It is all the more remarkable for a family business to reach that milestone. 
Last month, I wrote about Blanchette Garden’s announcement that it will close its doors after 32 years.  Weston Nurseries, by contrast, appears positioned to thrive over the long run.  It has not been easy, though, and it has not been without wrenching change.
Weston Nurseries Chairman Wayne
Mezitt with family memorabilia
Weston’s story begins with Peter John Mezitt, who was born into a family of Latvian farmers in 1885 and studied agriculture before emigrating to America in 1911.  Mezitt found his way to Massachusetts where he would become superintendent of a vegetable farm.  By the early 1920s, he had set his mind to becoming a nurseryman and, in 1923, he and his wife Olga purchased 80 acres in Weston (then a country town far outside of Boston) and began Weston Nurseries.
Their children became part of the business, which grew steadily while establishing a reputation for growing New England-hardy plants.  By 1941, Weston Nurseries encompassed 200 acres.  After World War II, urban development began encroaching on Weston and the family began looking for new land.  They found 300 acres of hilly, rocky abandoned farmland in Hopkinton that had the advantages of having a microclimate of a more southerly region (thus extending the growing season) and being firmly beyond Boston’s urban sphere.  The land was cleared, terraces were built, ponds were dug and roads were created.
Weston's Hopkinton Garden Center
offers a lot more than plants
The course of Weston Nurseries’ history changed in 1945.  For several years, Peter Mezitt’s son Ed had worked to crossbreed rhododendron to create stronger colors and more vigorous plants.  In early May of that year, a remarkable hybrid bloomed and, with it, the PJM rhododendron.  Weston Nurseries can be said to have fairly singlehandedly created the rhododendron (and its taxonomical little brother, the azalea) as a must-have ornamental shrub. 
By the 1970s, a third generation of Mezitts had joined the business.  Ed’s sons, Wayne and Roger, became part of Weston Nurseries, which now sprawled across 900 acres in Hopkinton.  The PJM family of rhododendrons became the gold standard of spring blooming ornamentals and Weston’s Hopkinton retail store a destination for anyone serious about quality horticulture.  Those acres yielded not just rhodies, but a full range of trees and shrubs.  The fourth generation of family members joined the company in 1996 (today, Wayne’s son, Peter Mezitt, is president). 
Employees dressed in flapper
costumes were everywhere
The world – and the industry – does not stand still, though.  The high cost of growing plants from seed to finished product in Hopkinton began pressuring margins in the 1990s.  Bringing in trees and shrubs from specialty growers became much more practical.  In the meantime, Boston’s suburbs grew and prospered… and urbanization headed inexorably west.  By 2005, the 900 acres owned by the Mezitt family was more valuable than the nursery business that occupied the site.
Weston Nurseries' 900 acres.  The
land below Route 135 was sold in
2005 and is being developed
Family pressures can both strengthen and divide an enterprise.  After 2000, Roger Mezitt asked to be bought out of the business.  That began a years-long effort that could have – and nearly did – extinguish Weston Nurseries.  It took a voluntary bankruptcy filing in October 2005 to open the way for the $23.7 million sale of 615 acres – two-thirds of the Mezitts’ land - for residential development that provided the liquidity for Roger’s exit.  The new community, called Legacy Farms, is now rising on the south side of Route 135.  Wayne Mezitt continues as Chairman of Weston Nurseries.
Legacy Farms can fairly be called
the price of securing Weston
Nurseries future
Yesterday afternoon, the events of eight years ago seemed remote.  The retail center hummed with activity when I was there even as guests enjoyed a jazz band and flapper-dressed employees greeted long-time customers.  Weston-created cultivars are well represented at the New York Botanical Garden’s new Azalea Garden. Today, you can purchase everything from upscale lawn furniture and pizza ovens to tropical plants at Weston Nurseries.  There is even a two-year-old satellite operation in Chelmsford, twenty miles away. 
I spoke with Wayne Mezitt at the event.  At 71, he is the steward of a legacy of horticultural quality and no mere figurehead.  He recognizes that Weston Nurseries must continue to evolve, and he and son Peter will guide that evolution.  Weston Nurseries still owns several hundred acres, part of it dominated by hoop houses that are no longer needed.  Planning is underway to determine how best to use surplus acreage.

Betty and I have made our decision to ‘downsize’ from our overly large house in Medfield.  We are looking for property on which we can build our ‘final’ home and where Betty can create a new garden.  We know two things about that pending event: that we will stay in the Boston area and, wherever we build that third home, we will make the drive to Hopkinton to find exactly the right trees and shrubs for it.

June 12, 2013

Company's Coming!

I am told that, in a different era, becoming a member of a garden club was not simply a matter of filling out an application and paying some dues.  There was an "applicants’ review committee" that went out and inspected the prospective member’s garden.  Notes were taken.  Discussions were held.  And, only if the garden showed exceptional dedication was a prospective member approved.  Those days have gone by the boards, of course.  Today, no one inspects your garden.  What a silly idea! 
The xeric garden is the first thing that
visitors see when they come to the
house.  That's baptisia and peonies
blooming in the background.
Then why was I out re-edging our driveway this morning and sweeping it clean? 
The reason is that two garden-club-related groups are coming to our home this week.  And Betty wants the garden to look its best.  Call it a matter of taking pride in your garden and wanting to make certain it reflects what she says when she talks about gardening to other groups.
The right-hand side of the xeric
garden (foreground) and shrub bed.
The deutzia and fothergilla are
in bloom (double-click any image
for a better look)
By way of background, last week Betty was installed as the First Vice President of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  In two years, she will become the Federation’s president.  Anyone who thinks that being an officer of a state garden club federation is an honorific with no responsibilities needs to re-think what garden clubs do in the 21st Century. 
Walking up the driveway, visitors
see the two shade beds on the left.
For the past two years (as Second Vice President) Betty has had responsibility for two ‘big’ issues:  insurance and 501(c)(3) eligibility.  The latter consumed several hundred hours of her time.  The state garden club federation is a registered non-profit.  And, each individual club in the state (192 at last count) can choose to come under the state’s um-
This is the inner and outer sidewalk
beds are they appeared this morning.
It is a riot of peonies, irises, amsonia,
and geraniums.
brella.  Betty’s job was to patiently guide Massachusetts garden clubs through the process and to make certain that her charges did not end up running afoul of the IRS (which sometimes seemed to take delight in making small clubs fill out voluminous paperwork for no particularly good reason).  Betty excelled at her job.  At the state garden club conference last week, I watched several club presidents and treasurers express their appreciation for her efforts.

Detail of the outer sidewalk
bed.  From front to back,
huechera, amsonia, yellow
and blue iris, and a dwarf
Japanese maple.
As First Vice President, Betty’s new responsibilities include overseeing District Directors (‘DD’, to keep things simple).  DDs are the link among clubs in neighboring towns and with the Federation.  It’s hard work but actually a fun job, and Betty's goal is to have them all hit the ground running.  Lunch at our home seemed like a great way to introduce everyone to their new responsibilities.
This afternoon, the new crop of DDs are coming to our home for lunch.  My job, as principal undergardener, has been to make certain the that garden is ship shape and Bristol fashion, with all the beds freshly edged and mulched, and the ‘million dollar edge’ laid down on our 230-foot-long driveway using a tool that is right out of another century but that makes a great first impression as people walk up to the house.

A portion of the rock
garden at the rear of the
The accompanying photos show the garden as it looks today (June 11).  It has been very wet and cool for the past week, so perennials such as peonies, irises and baptisia are sticking around far longer than usual, while the ‘yellow’ flowers of summer (heleopsis, helianthus) are still budding up.  The containers Betty planted at the beginning of May are not nearly as lush as they would usually be at this point in June, but they’re attractive all the same.

There is no formal tour planned as part of the luncheon, but most of the group has heard about the garden and it is nice to be prepared.