PEABODY — Billy Murphy shakes his head and laughs when he thinks about how Tillie’s farm stand is a local summertime staple that only opens after months of cold weather work.
Open from April 1 to Christmas Eve, Tillie’s is a place where people can pull over on Lynn Street and buy produce and plants ranging from berries to corn and begonias to petunias.
The farm stand is open seven days a week, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. and Father’s Day is when operations typically get in full swing with a wide range of produce and food for sale.
With a local history dating back to 1940, Tillie’s is much more than the farmstand; it is a year-round, 15-employee operation supervised by Murphy.
“We only have two or three weeks of down time. We start seeding in the second or third week of January and the end of February is when we get ramped up,” Murphy said.
The city bought Tillie’s with community preservation money in 2007 and started formally managing it in 2017. Murphy, a South Peabody native, worked 10 years for Tillie’s former owner Earl Spurr. Tillie’s is named after Spurr’s mother, Marion “Tillie” Spurr.
“I grew up right down the street and started as a summer employee shucking corn,” said Murphy.
The 12 acres of fields off Lynn Street where carrots and raspberries once grew are currently fallow. But Tillie’s under city ownership has upgraded or expanded its operation annually.
Jeanette McGinn and Rebecca Ingalls converted part of Tillie’s fields into an herb garden where anise, hyssop, fennel and dill are already sprouting. As more herbs poke their heads out of the dirt and start growing, volunteers will tend and cultivate the garden.
Tillie’s big greenhouse runs more efficiently, Murphy said, since the city converted its former oil heating system to natural gas.
The greenhouse and a smaller greenhouse located feet away from it are outfitted every winter for a new growing season. Murphy and his crew, including mother and co-manager Shelagh Murphy, make sure the greenhouse irrigation systems are working and start taking delivery of “plug trays,” each holding 500 sprouts or seedlings poised to thrive in the moist, warm climate encapsulated in each greenhouse.
Billy Murphy said Earl Spurr’s work ethic rubbed off on him and his co-workers who juggle building and equipment repairs with nurturing Tillie’s plants, including rows and rows of plug trays laid out on pallets beneath 700 plant baskets hanging from the ceiling of the big greenhouse.
The initial work that begins in February accelerates in March and April when loads of new plantlings arrive every week to take their spots in the greenhouses.
Murphy and his mother said their jobs never become routine and the miracle of watching seeds grow into plants never gets old.
“It’s a little bit of Paradise. You’re surrounded by beautiful things and our customers become like extended family,” said Shelagh Murphy.
In addition to customers, the other wing of Tillie’s extended family is the volunteer groups that help out at the farm: Peabody ACCESS post high school and Northeast Arc.