When Paul Mahoney started selling vegetables in 1959, he knew he was in a “growing” business. Mahoney, now 74, has cultivated the seed of Mahoney’s Rock Ledge, the small farm stand he planted on Winchester Street a half-century ago, into a $30 million-a-year operation, Mahoney’s Garden Centers.
When Paul Mahoney started selling vegetables in 1959, he knew he was in a “growing” business.
He just didn’t know how much.
Mahoney, now 74, has cultivated the seed of Mahoney’s Rock Ledge, the small farm stand he planted on Winchester Street a half-century ago, into a $30 million-a-year operation, Mahoney’s Garden Centers.
Mahoney’s celebrated its 50th anniversary this week.
“It was just a canvas top with posts and rocks on the floor,” Mahoney recalled of his first stand. “I wouldn’t have quite believed what it has become.”
Originally from Melrose, Mahoney moved to Winchester in 1946 after a death in the family left the land under control of his mother, Martha Russell Mahoney.
Mahoney worked on the farm — roughly 53 acres and used mostly for vegetables, cut flowers and pansies — from age 11, and began to sow seeds of success as a teenager.
“When I was a sophomore in high school, I went door-to-door selling corn and tomatoes,” he said. “I made $1,200 that summer.”
Mahoney’s career aspirations, however, were still in flux. He attended Boston College after high school and graduated in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in economics.
He intended to follow in the footsteps of his father and sister by becoming an attorney.
However, after a brief stint with the U.S. Army and a short teaching gig in Boston, Mahoney realized his true calling.
“His heart was in the land,” said Mahoney’s wife Doris. “He always was a very proud farmer.”
Mahoney’s heart was also with Doris. The two were sweethearts in high school, and married in September of 1959, the same month he opened up shop.
“I remember we had to take a vacation that first month for our honeymoon,” Mahoney said smiling.
The sapling years
Doris, a lifelong Winchester resident, said she enjoyed her early years of farming, when the land in town was less built-out and the methods of farming it were more picaresque.
“It was just beautiful waking up in the morning, and seeing Fred [an employee] out there with his horse plowing the field,” she said. “A lot of things have changed.”
For instance, back then, Mahoney’s had quite a few competitors in town.
“There aren’t many farms left in Winchester now,” she lamented.
Doris said she and Mahoney enjoyed raising their six kids on the farm very much — even if they did greet customers in a somewhat unorthodox fashion.
“One day I said, ‘You have to do something with the boys,’” Doris recalled with a sideward glance at her husband. “So he brought them down to the stand and said, ‘OK boys, you’re going to check out all the potatoes and throw out the bad ones.’”
Which, technically, they did.
“I come back a while later and they’re throwing rotten potatoes out of the building near the customers,” Mahoney said with a smile.
“There’s one of the potato throwers,” he said a few minutes later as Tom Mahoney strode into the room.
Tom admitted to the crime, with one clarification.
“We were throwing them at the customers, not near them,” he said. “We figured if they could withstand that, they’d be good for buying stuff.”
Business rooted in family
After their spud-chucking days were over, the Mahoney kids settled nicely into the family business.
Tom and his brother Peter Mahoney work at the Winchester location, and continuously turn over ideas for the future of the company like a gardener tilling soil.
“We’re looking to the future of lawn care in America,” said Tom, who is focused on creating the best organic fertilizers possible.
“We think the green venture is here to stay.”
Peter agreed, and said that in just the last five years, the ratio of chemical to organic fertilizer sales has gone from 3-to-1 chemicals to 3-to-1 organic.
“The technology over the past five years has increased tenfold, and we’re hoping to deliver a much better product for this area.”
The brothers agreed that laws banning chemical fertilizers are already on the books in Wellesley and Weston, as well as in Quebec, Canada, and that they expect similar legislation to be enacted once the detrimental effects of chemicals on the health of humans and pets are more fully understood.
With this in mind, Tom said Mahoney’s spent $200,000 building the prototype of a special truck for its SafeLawns and Landscapes service, which utilizes a living liquid biological “amendment” called SafeTea that rehabilitates lifeless soils.
The truck requires a special aeration system to ensure the microorganisms survive, and according to the Mahoneys, can promote a fully healthy, lush lawn without the use of “harmful synthetic chemicals.”
“Twenty years from now, we think everyone’s going to know about this,” said Tom.
Though his family’s farm has been firmly rooted in Winchester since 1878 (see timeline below), Mahoney, with the encouragement of his family, decided to open a second retail location in Tewksbury in 1980.
The success of that location, Mahoney’s Too, led to a number of other ventures in surrounding towns over the next two decades.
“The kids got into the business and were really thinking ahead,” said Mahoney.
He said that his son Paul Jr. is currently running the company’s locations on Martha’s Vineyard, while another son Mike is working on a line of organic herbs and vegetables called “Uncle Mike’s,” which will debut next spring.
“He’s a fanatic about tomatoes and his veggie garden,” said sister Laurie, who serves as the company’s marketing director. “He knows everything about pesticides and organics.”
Mahoney said he is proud to see his children carrying out the kind of innovative and forward-thinking customer service that he has been providing to customers for 50 years.
“What’s made us successful is putting in the time and keeping on the edge of new [plant] varieties as they come out,” he said.
For instance, he said that while they offered three kinds of impatiens when they opened, they now offer between 15 and 20.
“We are always attending shows all over the country to look for the best varieties,” he said.
Though the company now has eight locations across the state, Mahoney said he is proud that 40 percent of his business still comes from his original store in Winchester.
“It’s great to be able to provide jobs for a lot of kids in town,” said Mahoney, who added that he’s seen multiple generations of youngsters walk the aisles of the greenhouse as kids and return as teenagers and adults for employment.
“No matter where we go, we always meet someone who reminds us that they once worked for us,” said Doris. “It’s a very satisfying feeling to know how many went on to successful careers of their own.”
The couple also thanked the late Jim Amundsen, who never chose to move on, working for Mahoney’s for about 50 years, until his death.
“He was really our first employee,” said Doris.
In addition to providing jobs to the region, the company also donates landscaping to the Jenks Center and Town Hall Honor Roll, and recently provided parking for the Cal Ripken 12-Year-Old World Series.
“That was fun to watch,” said Mahoney. “They really played well.
He added that out-of-state visitors seemed to like not only his business, but the town as well.
“It’ll grow on you,” he said with a smile.
A look at Paul Mahoney
Years in town: 64
Street: Socrates Way
Education: Boston College, B.S. in economics
Mass. State Outstanding Young Farmers Award
1982 Recognized for generous Arbor Day contribution (Mass. Arborist Association)
1985 Award of Distinction (Mass. Flower Growers Association)
1986 Man of the Year (Mass. Flower Growers Association)
1993 Winchester Man of the Year for the beautification of the town
2001 Mass. Flower Growers Association Award of Excellence
Boston Magazine Hall of Fame for Best Garden Centers in Boston
Finalist in the Mass. Entrepreneur of the Year Awards
President’s Cup Award (New England Flower Show)
Mahoney Family Farm and Business Timeline
1700s: Major William Johnson owns 900 acres of land, some of which extends into Burlington
1726: Deed of Sale to William Belknap includes 200 acres, a barn and a house
1750: Deed of Sale to Daniel Reed includes 109 acres, a barn and house
1800s: After staying in the Reed family for three generations, 80 acres is sold to John Carlton
1878: The 80 acres was sold to John Russell and has been in the Mahoney/Russell family ever since
1946: Mahoney moves to the farm at age 11 after his mother comes into possession of 53 acres.
1959: Mahoney’s Rocky Ledge farm stand opens.
1963: Mahoney builds the North Greenhouse, which helped improve flower quality.
1971: Mahoney purchases the Winchester Conservatories
1980: Mahoney’s opens a second retail location, Mahoney’s Too, in Tewksbury.
2007: With the addition of Chelmsford, the business now has eight locations and a state-of-the-art, 200,000 square-foot growing facility
Present: The farm in Winchester has been in the family for four generation and expanded to 182 acres.