As a girl growing up in rural Wisconsin, Tara Schaafsma, 39, loved gathering edible berries from a nearby woods, and harvesting flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables from her parents’ large backyard gardens.
With the comfort of that childhood memory intact, seven years ago, when she and her spouse, David Schaafsma, settled into their quaint, three-bedroom home in the southeast corner of Oak Park, the mom of three young kids wanted to recreate the joys of country living for them in their new “postage stamp size” backyard.
“One of my favorite things as a child was to walk back into the woods and get berries. We had blackberries. We had black raspberries. We had red raspberries, grapes, gooseberries and lots of other plants’, says Schaafsma, who is also an electrician. “So, I brought back gooseberries from my grandfather’s farm, and planted those in the northwest corner of my back yard. Otherwise, since my kids don’t live in the woods, they would never have the childhood experience I had.”
From there she planted blackberries from a catalogue, then red raspberry bushes she dug up from her sister’s patch in Wisconsin. Then came the black raspberries, another familial gifting, and two store-bought grape vines that now swell over a wooden arbor she built.
Last summer at the Oak Park Farmers’ Market, her middle son, Henry, spotted strawberry plants, and his mom caved in.
“This is my first year to experiment with them,” she says.
The bonanza of berry growing really took off two years ago when a microburst that hit southeast Oak Park took out a big tree in Schaafsma’s backyard. That storm transformed her growing space from shade to full-sun.
Now, in that tree’s stead, is planted a “little giant” apple tree, which last summer produced its first two apples.
So, in her modularly designed gardens, with a yard that still offers spaces to play, she enthusiastically grows a variety of afterschool pick-and-eat snacks her kids, Harry, Henry and Lyra can eat straight from the vine: rhubarb, mint, tomatoes, peas, pole beans, and yes, all those ripening berries.
All this is tastefully installed against a visual tapestry of in-the-ground blooms and the colorful flowers she vines on two fences – wisteria, trumpet vine and clematis she hopes will eventually meet and weave on the chain link fence to the north, and roses and morning glories on the other side.
“I love to eat the berries, and so do my kids, so much so that I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Meanwhile, growing up her deck is a high cranberry bush she got from her great aunt.
“It’s only a foot tall so far, but I am hoping it grows up as tall as my deck,” she says. “We will probably eat those, but the birds love them, so I am hoping to get more wild birds, maybe some grosbeaks for us to look at. That would be nice.”