Melissa Elsmo

A Little Free Library and a take what you want herb garden greet passersby in the front yard of Barbara Korbel’s Berwyn bungalow. A water bowl sits on the front stoop ready to hydrate any thirsty pup out for a walk and native prairie plants fill the front yard beds; everything about the little house is welcoming and inclusive.

“This really is a way of life for us,” says Barbara Korbel as we begin strolling through her Berwyn homestead.

 Korbel’s private tour offers a preview of the upcoming Sugar Beet Edible Garden Tour. The 6th annual self-guided tour, scheduled for Saturday July 14th, offers an insider’s peek into edible gardens located in Oak Park, Berwyn, River Forest, and Austin.

Korbel remembers gardening with her grandmother fondly, but her passion for planting truly blossomed in 1980 when she talked her apartment landlord into allowing her to grow a few items in the yard around the building.Ten years later she and her partner, Patrice Murtha, an accomplished potter, purchased their Berwyn bungalow and their real gardening adventure began.

“Growing food is like the biggest freedom we have;” says Korbel as we make our way toward her back yard, “government can take away a lot of things, but if we have seeds we have a way of life.”

Korbel enjoyed a long career as a Head of Book Conservation at the Art Institute of Chicago and, served as Collections Conservator at the Newberry Library before retiring to focus on her work as a gardener and weaver. A grand Japanese maple, given to Korbel as a retirement gift, shades the garden entrance. 

The 28 year old garden occupies the back half of a standard city lot, but thanks to the lack of a garage, Korbel’s backyard is more generously sized thank most. Colors pop from all areas of the yard; clusters of orange hued nasturtiums snuggle up near squash plants, bits of Murhta’s broken pottery are incorporated into the garden path, a miniature greenhouse contains a burgeoning okra plant, and bright yellow yarrow nestles in the prairie plant section. Milkweed is planted in abundance to attract butterflies, while bees busily flit between plants. It is immediately clear the composition of this working garden is based on the meeting the needs of the Berwyn couple.

Korbel attempts to grow something new every year and has been gardening for so long that she jokes she may be running out of “weird things” to grow. While creativity is a part of Korbel’s garden philosophy (heck, she has a few interloping Icelandic poppies placed among her native Illinois plants for a burst of color), the devoted gardener celebrates the practical side of growing food, loofah sponges and even plants, like wode, amaranth and weld that produce all-natural fabric dyes for the yarn she uses for weaving.

A Halloween party inspired Korbel to repurpose her hay bale decorations; She plants eggplant directly into the bales and the decomposing hay feeds the plants and conditions the garden soil at the same time. Around the corner a  trailing green plant spills out of a burlap sack. 

“I am growing a potatoes in that sack;” says Korbel, “I’ve never done it before, but I’ve learned  there isn’t as much risk of damaging the potatoes during the  harvest if you do it this way.” 

Korbel is literally growing a sack of potatoes; her garden is at once practical and whimsical

In addition to featuring innovative growing methods, more traditional galvanized metal beds produce loads of fresh produce for the couple to enjoy including peppers, beans, and `assorted greens. The garden produces more tomatoes and cucumbers than the couple can eat during the summer, but Murtha will preserve the excess harvest through canning. While the garden is time consuming during the peak season, quieter winter months allow Korbel and Murtha to focus on their shared pottery and textile focused business called Winter Rye

.”We just love watching things grow because it is so  rewarding;” says Korbel, “our garden reminds us of the power and resilience of nature and helps us hang onto the idea that we are part of this earth and not in control of it.”

It is easy to be inspired by the thoughtful approach Korbel takes when it comes to gardening; thankfully she will be on hand in her garden to inspire visitors during the Sugar Beet Edible Garden Tour this Saturday.

Korbel’s tips to begin a practical garden:

  • Start with a two-foot plot of land. If you start too big, a garden can get overwhelming; start small for the best results.
  • Add a few plants and some seeds and wait.
  • Water the plants when they look thirsty and stake them when they need support.
  • Harvest and save seeds to expand your garden next year.
  • Invest in good seeds through programs like seed savers and use resources like the Sugar Beet Schoolhouse to learn more about homesteading.
  • Don’t be afraid of failure; plants are more resilient that you might think.
  • Don’t be surprised when you get hooked on the power of gardening!

*Korbel and Murtha’s garden in one of several featured on the Sugar Beet Edible Garden Tour this year. The walk serves as a fundraiser for the Schoolhouse’s scholarship program (every attendee = greater accessibility for kids to learn about good food). Korbel, a local gardening expert, will be on hand in her home garden this Saturday to teach tour goers about her approch to urban agriculture and possibly inspire folks to begin growing their own food.

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