The Kordeshes live off the fat of the land - in their backyard

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Life finds a way, even in a newly seeded backyard vegetable garden, which, after a huge rainfall, more closely resembled a pond.

Before the deluge, several "tough little" radish and beet seeds, germinated in an Oak Park raised bed, were planted during Richard Kordesh and Maureen Staub Kordesh's mid-April Sugar Beet Cooperative backyard membership coffee.

"As part of getting the word out about the co-op, we have been holding larger events, and encouraging our membership to invite 30 or 40 of their friends over for coffees to help spread the word," said Rich, who sits on the group's board of directors. "At ours, one family brought their little boys so I gave them a couple of spades and they sowed our radish and beet seeds, which now, even after the big rain, are actually taking."

For these garden enthusiasts, whatever happens in nature, especially when the odds are against it, is a horticultural learning opportunity, which they absorb and then share with other home gardeners.

In 1996, then a young family with four growing kids, the couple purchased the 100-year-plus historic Victorian home on the 100 block of south Elmwood for its spaciousness, charm and, well, growth potential.

Since then, they have gradually been filling in that 40 x 175-foot lot with edible and floral vegetation. In the backyard, they say, the idea is to eventually phase out the remaining grass and replace it with what they enjoy eating: cucumbers, beets, lettuces, radishes, onions, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, dwarf fruit trees and herbs — all grown in the yard in large raised beds and on the deck in oversized terra-cotta pots.

Their cool-weather planting at the Sugar Beet Co-op recruitment event recently marked the kickoff of another seed-to-plate season of fresh colors, textures, and, yes, good eats. This, says the couple, is the sustainable practice that has leant definition, connectivity and purpose to the entirety of their almost 28-year marriage and family life. To their kids, now young adults, it also conjures fond memories of time spent with mom and dad sowing, growing, harvesting and then cooking family meals.

Coming by it naturally

Rich, 59, who grew up in Berwyn, first started terrace gardening when his young family lived in Pennsylvania — in a house with a hill for a backyard. For Maureen, 54, the love of it set in as a girl, with a small veggie patch in place for her behind their garage, and a successful businessman grandpa who later in life became a farmer, and shared his passion for working the soil with her.

"We certainly don't have anything professionally landscaped around the house, and the fact that we do all of it in our own humble way overall gives our house more of a homegrown character," said the working mom who is a legal writing professor at John Marshall School of Law in Chicago. "I don't mean that in any kind of 'puny' way. You can tell when you walk past our house and through the backyard that these are people who spend a lot of time doing what they know how to do, even though it might not be professional grade."

This do-it-yourself approach to landscaping makes their big, old, turn-of-the-century Victorian a pedestrian-friendly place, where friends and strangers understand at a glance that this living space is a place where family gets life's work done.

Home is where Rich has built and managed a career in community development. Much of what he does focuses on how important the productive uses of home and habitat are for strengthening communities, as well as for creating good, holistically supportive, developmental environments for children.

"We look at our home as a pretty comprehensive use of space, so I have worked here a lot and Maureen works here and at John Marshall," said Kordesh, who blogs on the subject. "Then we grow all this food in the back and around the sides and in the front, as you see."

Houses, he notes, are more than places to hang out and watch TV. Instead, he suggests that a home is the place to actually do a lot of "your fulfilling, creative, productive and co-productive work that makes family life better. We should be getting a lot of use out of these wonderful structures that we have because it's just good for the community."

That may be why the Kordeshes got involved in growing the grass roots food movement called Sugar Beet Co-op. Being a "stock holder" and supporter of a future brick-and-mortar cooperative grocery store was another draw, they say.


Two years ago, after publishing a new edition of his book On Restoring Power to Parents in Places, Rich wanted to connect with like-minded folks.

One thing led to another, and last summer he joined the Sugar Beet Co-op. He served on the steering committee of the local food movement that began with about 15 families in northeast Oak Park, who wanted to learn how to grow and eat food together, then figure out how take the concept community-wide.

As the Sugar Beet model ripens, many more good things are bearing fruit.

"We have already incorporated, and will be securing our 501c3 status in the next couple of months," said Kordesh.

From Maureen's perspective, an integral component of Sugar Beet is its ability to address some of the "food desert" issues in Austin, which she anticipates will provide an easy go-to volunteer activity for many Oak Parkers.

"A lot of the food awareness — where it comes from, how to cook it, what is the difference between food that is good for you and food that is not — is also being directed outward … with the belief that if you strengthen the communities around you, that will also strengthen you as a community."

Meanwhile, as another growing season sets in, what Rich and Maureen see is a changing palette of colors.

"Our house is a beautiful house, and there is a gracefulness and gentleness about it," Rich said. "I think our garden makes it look alive, like it's got a little more life, a little more breath … sort of like it has a soul, because having a garden brings out the life in a house."

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