A Season in Paradise

Brian Kuhl
13 min readAug 27, 2021

Twenty years ago this summer I spent a season in paradise. At Paradise Farm, to be exact.

I had been teaching for a few years at a community college in Massachusetts and wanted to be outside that summer, more active. Having an interest in gardening, I looked in a directory of organic farms and Paradise Farm was the closest. So I wrote the owners a letter early that April to ask about volunteering, adding that although I had no experience, “I do grow houseplants and a few herbs indoors.” I imagine they got a chuckle out of that.

A reply came soon after with an invitation to visit. When I arrived, the owners and I chatted around their dining room table before they gave me a tour of the field out back. Their Australian shepherd, Maggie, followed us eagerly every step of the way. George and Joan were retired teachers from the Boston area who had moved north of the city in the mid-1990s. They built a stone and brick house on their sixteen acres, of which they farmed three and half. They seemed happy to have help, and we set up my schedule for one or two days a week.

My typical day on the farm was to work all morning until close to noon, take a break with George and Joan for lunch, and then go back out until mid- to late afternoon. As I’d expected, I learned things like how to make organic fertilizer and spot anthracnose, a fungal disease of plants. But looking back, this practical knowledge came with reminders of some of the fundamental things in life. Like the rewards of hard work. The joy of being in nature. And how to go with the flow when things don’t go as planned. As May Sarton wrote, “A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.”

Another lesson came indirectly through my hosts: how to work with one’s spouse without driving each other crazy. George was outspoken, grunted often, and ended sentences with “see.” Joan was more subtle, kind, and quick to share knowledge. He did the work that required muscle but also took more breaks to go smoke in the garage; she did more of the painstaking tasks that called for a soft touch. Together they made a good, if not always harmonious, team.

One of my earliest visits entailed planting onions. As Joan and I walked ahead with a cart full of bulbs and tools, she said, “Now George and I have been married forty-one years, so just ignore all the yelling and bickering.”

We measured and staked the rows, and then got to work. Joan went first with a rake, pulling aside weeds and stones. I followed with a wooden inline dibble, a tool with several protruding dowels about three inches apart, pushing it into the ground to make holes. And George brought up the rear, inserting the bulbs and tamping down the soil around them.

With the first row complete, George and Joan measured out the second, fifteen inches over. They stood at opposite ends, unspooling string between them, which they each tied to a stake that went in the soil. George eyed the line and yelled, “Are you sure that’s fifteen inches?!”

“Yes!” said Joan. “Are you sure yours is?!”

As crusty as George could be, he was kind and patient with me. He taught me techniques that sometimes took a bit to master, but he seemed to genuinely want me to learn them, letting me do so without pressure. And he always thanked me for my help when I left for the day. Joan, I soon learned, could hold her own; she knew when to talk back to George and when to just let him sputter.

Mid-June brought heat that reached into the nineties. One gorgeous hot Saturday I arrived to help plant tomatoes. George and Joan had raised seedlings in cold frames they had built, but the cool weather that spring had left them stunted, not ready for planting. Keeping the cold frames closed a bit longer each day had helped boost their growth, but while George and Joan ran errands one morning, temperatures had shot up too quickly. By the time they arrived home, almost all the plants had withered and burned. The end of two months’ labor just like that. So we were planting store-bought seedlings instead.

George went ahead with a measuring board and dug the holes. Joan and I followed, planting the seedlings from the trays. She showed me how to pack the soil down firmly around the plant to anchor it and remove any air pockets, and then form a slight depression to catch and hold water. One side, she explained, should have a fairly pronounced lip to catch water that drained off the land in that direction.

The last to go in were the “doubles,” or two plants growing together. George and Joan carefully separated those, gently unwinding their entangled roots to avoid damaging them. I was instructed to fill some watering cans. “Any time you disturb a plant,” George explained, “you have an obligation to take care of it to make sure it rejuvenates.”

“Which means water it,” Joan translated.

A week later it was the squashes’ turn, and we spent six hours planting two beds full of seeds. To the soil we added a layer of limestone — an alkali to balance the acidity of the manure that had been mixed in — and organic fertilizer made of greensand and black rock phosphate. After we spread it all out with the flat side of a bow rake, George tilled it with the tractor to blend it together. The result was a planting bed so lush and warm I wanted to run barefoot through it.

We took a break just before noon to get another bag of limestone from the garage and have a drink. After we got back and were about halfway down a row — Joan with the limestone, me following with the fertilizer — showers began. Very light at first, then harder. It briefly became a soaking rain, and it looked like we might not get the seeds in.

“What the hell’s this weather doing?!” George boomed from the tractor.

“Raining,” Joan deadpanned.

But it soon stopped and we were able to finish.

Maggie was with us, as always, good as gold. She stuck to the paths well and stayed out of the way, amusing herself with chewing sticks and chasing insects. Occasionally, she lay on sprouts that were too small to see well, and when George barked at her once she retreated sheepishly to the tomatoes. “Poor thing,” said Joan. “She went to the tomatoes ’cause at least she can see those.”

On my next visit, at the end of June, we just about finished the planting. George was in a cranky mood from the get-go, and he and Joan locked horns a few times. Our task was mostly planting squash seedlings that they had started in the cold frames.

Joan measured and staked just one end of the row, and George eyeballed it on the tractor, watching the stake all the way from the other end as he tilled the ground. When he got closer, he waved an arm to tell Joan to remove the stake before he ran it over. But he was still pretty far from the end, and going rather slowly. When he got there, we could all see that he had curved considerably inward without the stake as a guide. He looked back at the row and said, “Jesus Christ, Joanie!” This was one of many invocations to the supreme being that day.

We first put in the squash seedlings, planting two rows per bed, about two feet apart to give them room to run. Joan wanted them farther apart than George did so they didn’t run together. But he insisted the rows go more toward center. “I’ll tell ’em to grow in the other direction,” he said as Joan chuckled.

After lunch we planted some more. Everything they had prepared went in the ground and still there was more row. The question became what other plants could logically go with the squash, and the two of them conferred about what to get next. George had just walked back to the cold frame for some seedlings when Joan decided that we needed another kind. “Do you like to see me schlepping back and forth?” George asked. “I just went all the way back for a tray.”

“Yes,” Joan replied. “I’m enjoying watching you.”

They held each other’s gaze for a long moment, and I held my breath. Then they both burst out laughing.

George went back for Joan’s seedlings. As he came up the rows, she said to me, “I tease him that men lose their behinds as they get older, while women add to them. He used to have such a cute little behind.” Just then, George turned into our row, breaking out into improvised song: “I schlep along . . .”

By mid-July, weeds threatened to take over. The onions and beans were buried; even the larger tomato plants were hard to find. Joan explained that the weeds could take nutrients away from the vegetables and slow their growth. We were up against pigweed and purslane, crabgrass and quack grass. Starting in the beans, we pulled out most of them by hand.

Next we needed to rescue the cherry tomatoes and get them up off the ground, where they were being overrun. Joan and I first went through yanking up weeds from the outside in, then located the tomato plants and held them up while we weeded closely around them. George followed us with bamboo stakes about four feet high to make tripods for the plants to climb. After tying the tops of the three stakes together, we secured the plants to them with a tool that stapled a piece of ribbon around both.

Joan was very good about things like keeping the plant stem close to the stake while allowing the clusters of unripened tomatoes free rein to grow uninhibited. At one point she gently guided a small branch through the ribbon so it partially covered a cluster. “There,” she said. “That will shade it a bit from the full sun.”

For about three and a half hours, we just weeded and staked the cherry tomatoes. It got quite hot in the sun, but it was rewarding to see the progress made: plants free of weeds, all staked up and off the ground where rot and fungus could take hold.

The task was difficult, crouching down and working so delicately. At times like that, I often wished our toiling would be over as soon as possible, and we could go rest. I was amazed that George and Joan, three decades older than I, farmed every day, weather permitting. But I did love being out in nature, and it was worth it at the end of the day. Colors seemed brighter, the air purer, my sweat dirtier and my showers cleaner, eating and sleeping finer. Few things were as satisfying.

Late July and into August were scorching hot, and I missed some time while I moved to a new apartment. When I returned, I could see things had really taken off. The squash had already gone crazy when I was last there, but now everything else had as well. The watermelons were coming in nicely, and the beans were out of control. The peppers and eggplants had both had a first harvesting. One day I picked beans with Joan, on another I harvested squash with George.

They had been taking their produce to farmers’ markets for a while by then, and they invited me to come sometime to see that side of the business. I joined them on a brilliant Saturday morning toward the end of August. It was a bit chilly early on but warmed up to feel like an early fall day. The sun glistened on the Merrimack River that ran behind the market.

The first customers of the morning arrived before the opening time of eight thirty. A short, dour-faced Italian woman walked up with a younger, well-dressed woman in her twenties. They homed in on the Romano flat beans. The older woman poked her fingers into the brown paper bag that held them and looked them over. “Is this all you have?” she asked. It was a full bag. Joan told her it was, and she replied, “I take them all. How much?”

“A dollar fifty a pound,” said Joan.

“You give me deal because I buy them all,” came the reply.

“That is,” Joan explained. “They’re a dollar sixty regularly.” The woman’s frown said, Okay, I’ll take them, but you could do better. After they paid, the women trundled off to their car to deposit the beans, then returned to other vendors. “That’s the same woman who bought me out last week,” Joan told me. “I think she owns a restaurant.”

Thus our day began. I started out bagging for Joan, who ran the scale and the cash box. Soon she showed me the ropes so I could also help with transactions. George restocked the produce and fielded customers’ questions. He looked rather debonair, sporting khakis, a blue chambray shirt, and a Panama hat.

The other vendors included two large commercial farms that sold a wide variety of produce. “They’re practically like a supermarket,” Joan remarked. “But we’re the only ones that are organic, and for some people that makes a difference.”

Our most popular items were beans and squash. We had a small amount of basil, which went briskly and soon sold out. No one cared for the cukes until about mid-morning, after which they also sold steadily. Many people found the pattypan squash very cute, but didn’t know what to do with it. Joan patiently repeated the various ways to cook it.

We also had a round kind of squash called “eight ball” zucchini from their shape. As with all the squash, some of them had grown extra big since we couldn’t pick everything in time. These Joan jokingly called “cannonball zucchini.” Most people confused them with pumpkins or watermelons, so by the end of the morning Joan had posted a sign on them that read, “I am not a watermelon.”

George was in his element, kibitzing with all the old ladies looking for a bargain. Then our first customers returned. Joan was at the next stall talking with a woman who sold crafts, so they spoke to George briefly.

“Joan!” he thundered, wanting her to deal with it. She came over and the women explained that they weren’t happy with the quality of some of the Romano beans and wanted to return a portion. Joan dutifully gave them a refund.

“They wanted all of them without looking at them,” she said after they had walked away. “Of course there are going to be some bad ones. They probably took them home, sorted through them, and returned all the bad ones.” And they still got the bulk price for buying them all, though they kept less than half.

Later, an old woman came by looking for cucuzza squash. We had several that were small and tender, as well as a few that had grown large. She held one up to George and said that it was just the right size for stuffing, which is how she cooked them. Did we have more? No. “Well that’s the perfect size. Can you get me about a dozen like that sometime?”

George said he would try to keep an eye on them and harvest them at that size. “But they get away from you, you know? And you get a good rain like we did and, boom, forget about it.” After she left, he grumbled, “Jesus H. Christ.”

“What’s he up to now?” Joan wondered as she came over to us.

“For that woman you gotta be God, you know? I can’t make them all the perfect size.”

I didn’t much like working the market. The public is unduly demanding, and it reminded me of my days in retail. But it was more than that. It seemed less satisfying with the crops all harvested, just waiting for them to sell. I enjoyed the farm work: preparing the soil, planning what and where to plant, nurturing the crops along the way. By closing time at one o’clock I was more than ready to go home. I made plans with Joan and George for my next visit, eager to get back to the land.

On the last day of August, I arrived at the farm at nine o’clock sharp, and was greeted by Maggie before I even got out of the car. She had heard me pull up, and Joan opened the door to let her out. Now she rushed over, squirming, barking shyly.

The only thing on the agenda that day was picking. George was in charge of the squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Joan and I tackled the beans. I did the yellows, she did the purples. Many of the yellows had never been harvested, so they were thick. The three of us worked in silence, until Joan and I were nearly even in our rows. Then she told me stories about her family, where they came from and the old tales they spun.

We worked until just before noon, when the wind picked up and the clouds rolled in, threatening rain. George suggested we take a break. As we talked back at the house, the sky brightened and we prepared to go back out. George had a smoke in the garage before joining us and called out that it still might rain — we should just stay and have lunch. “Some farmer,” Joan laughed as she and I walked along.

Picking beans was tedious and labor intensive — and tough on my back. Soon I wanted to die. George was also ready to call it quits after a short time. The heat was getting to him, and he said his legs couldn’t take the up and down of picking anymore. He had been dragging all day; then again, we were all a bit worn out, even the garden itself. The toll of dry, hot weather; the hard work; the time of season — who knows exactly what it was.

Joan and I stayed longer, and she enlisted my help in picking the Blue Lakes, but at last the rain came. I heard it before I felt it, mistaking it for a stiff breeze in the trees around us. Suddenly it was pouring. Up we popped, grabbed our bags, and made for the house. Then just like that, it was over. “Oh, well,” said Joan. “That’s it.” I nodded and understood. Once it rains, she had taught me, picking beans can spread anthracnose.

We had a leisurely lunch and chatted about the farm. Joan brought out a plate of fruit, cutting it up and doling it out as we talked until mid-afternoon. I explained that from then on, I could only come on Sundays if I had some free time. With the new semester, I’d no longer have Fridays off, and I was teaching a class Saturday mornings. Joan said they would still be working and to just give a call. But it felt like the end to me. As I was leaving, George said, “Hey, listen, thanks a million for your help today.”

That night I slept deeply as cool air blew in the window next to me. But I was awakened in the dead of night by the sound of rain hitting the roof of the front porch below. I reached out to check if it was coming in. It wasn’t, so I rolled over and drifted back to sleep, happy to notice that it was a lasting, soaking rain. Happy for Paradise Farm. ♦

For more, see http://briankuhl.net/writing.html



Brian Kuhl

A writer and editor who lived and taught in China for over seven years. Now based in the United States. See briankuhl.net, brushtalks.com