Joe's Garden Grows
By Joe Dethloff
On a dark and gray Saturday afternoon in early April, where rain clouds threaten from above to unleash a Northwest downpour, Joe's Garden is bustling with customers. An elderly woman examines flower pots. Young couples, perhaps beginning their first gardens, ask employees questions. Carl Weston, 61, calmly points each employee to customers wandering aimlessly, not knowing where to begin looking on the seven-acre property. Weston works hard seven days a week to keep this Bellingham institution running. But with his son Jason, 33, set to inherit the business, this may be the last year Weston holds the responsibility of maintaining the popular local business.
Weston, a former boat builder who grew up in the Happy Valley neighborhood, is soft-spoken and has the rugged face of a man who's worked the soil most of his life. Resting on his nose is a pair of glasses that offset his alligator skin, giving him the look of a loveable grandfather. He speaks slowly and deliberately, using no filler, instead preferring the short statements "yes" or "no." He rarely smiles, except when he jokes with employees about having to fire them. But Weston loves his business; it shows in the way he calmly rushes about getting each step of work done quickly but with care.
He and his wife Karol, 55, have owned the garden, located at Taylor Avenue and 32nd Street, since 1983, Weston says. They bought the property from Joe and Anne Bertero, who founded the business in 1933. The garden has been in Bellingham for more than a hundred years, and is the last truck farm - or farm that grows vegetables for direct market - in town, Karol Weston says. The Westons bought the farm to cultivate a lifelong passion for gardening. They run the business with the help of their son and about 14 employees, including Krysten Thornton, 23, who began working at Joe's earlier this year. Karol Weston says she thinks students especially like working at Joe's because of the hours and flexible schedule that allow time for homework and social activities.
"I just believe what they do is a good thing because it's a local farm that the community can support," Thornton says.
Customers can appreciate that the garden doesn't use pesticides, Karol Weston says, and that Joe's offers a wide variety of produce, growing everything from basil to zucchini to16 kinds of tomatoes.
The garden is open from March 1 until the middle of October. During the off-season it's vacation time, Karol Weston says while giving a tour of the garden. The vacation doesn't last long though. Two weeks into December, the Westons begin preparing for the coming season: ordering seeds and labels, sterilizing the pots and the greenhouse, and seeding the week before Christmas.
As she tours the farm, Karol Weston is radiant. She is always smiling, and is enthusiastic when talking about the garden. In the middle of the busy afternoon, she takes her time to converse with most customers. Some, such as Bellingham resident Gertrude Bolster, 82, have been regulars for years. A customer of Joe's for more than 30 years, Bolster says she visits every two weeks during spring and summer.
"We've [Bolster and her family] been a customer even before they bought it from the original owners," she says. "It's always been such nice people ... we just love to go there and visit and get our flowers and produce."
Karol seems especially proud of her son's contributions. Jason, who looks like his father with a more youthful demeanor, has worked in the business since he was 11. His passion for the land is as evident as his parents' passion. Unlike his brother Nathan, 35, a salesman in Seattle, Jason wanted to take part in cultivating the garden, and has long-term hopes of buying more property, including a vacant house owned by a relative of Joe Bertero. Next year, Jason will become the company president. Because of their love of the land, his parents will stay, working for Jason.
Customers have been regularly coming to Joe's, and business has been going so well, that this year Joe's has stopped selling its products to grocery stores. Karol Weston says the Weston's can sell all their flowers and produce straight from the farm. She also wants to sell their product at a reasonable price without the grocery stores marking it up.
Karol Weston won't have to worry about dealing with the gardening business much longer. As the summer begins, many garden lovers look forward to exploring Joe's Garden. When the summer ends, however, Carl and Karol Weston will likely be looking forward to passing on the garden to someone they can trust to keep it a cherished part of the Bellingham community.