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.

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