Livin' Off the Subdivided Land
If you live or work in McHenry County, chances are you were drawn here by the “countryside” feel of the region. Most of us here are suburbanites. But not Rich and Wendy Tobiasz, who have created a self-sustaining, five-acre organic “farmette” in the Spring Grove subdivision where they literally live off their land.
On what once was a hayfield, the Tobiaszes built their home in 1988. With all the treeless, open land, they quickly began planting trees—first the orchard in 1988, then evergreens around the perimeter to screen the yard and offer a wind break. And, they continued to plant...and plant...pines, spruce, horse chestnut, mountain ash, larch, black walnut, sweet gum, tulip tree and maples, including several sugar maples so they could someday make syrup. They named their land Evergreen Oasis Farm.
Today, the property boasts a 1/4-acre orchard, 1-acre vegetable plot, large herb garden, chickens, goats for milk production, sheep for wool and honeybees—they are also beekeepers.
Do It Yourself
Rich and Wendy do all the organic gardening, animal husbandry and property maintenance themselves, even though they both work “real jobs.” Rich is the fire chief of the Spring Grove Fire Protection District and Wendy is a nurse at Northern Illinois Medical Center in McHenry.
This husband-and-wife duo has been gardening since they were kids. Rich says his first garden was planted in 1964. It was his busia (Polish grandmother) in Chicago who taught him to grow vegetables, fruits and berries. For Wendy, it was a little garden in her childhood home in Palatine that began her life-long journey. “And, Rich took me to county fairs when we went out on dates,” she says, laughing.
“I’ve always been impressed at what my busia was able to do within her city lot—which was near Fullerton and Western Ave.,” Rich says. “She would grow much of her own food; she grew vegetables, cherries, peaches, berries, and she raised chickens. Then, she would preserve her food through canning or other means, and she walked to the grocery store to buy whatever else she needed.”
Rich learned well at his grandmother’s knee. Today he is a Master Gardener with the University of Illinois Extension in McHenry County and a frequent lecturer on organic gardening. Wendy has become proficient in gardening too, and also in wool carding, spinning and knitting. She gives demonstrations at county fairs and other venues.
Recently, Rich was the keynote speaker at Gardenfest 2008, an annual all-day series of seminars sponsored by McHenry County College and the University of Illinois Extension McHenry County Master Gardeners. His lecture was titled “Make Mine Green,” and it highlighted several environmental issues. In the vein of “think globally, act locally,” Rich discussed climate change, petroleum, energy and water conservation and the McHenry County soils and topography. Then he outlined steps to growing organic food, obtaining locally grown organic produce and saving energy.
“We do a bit of everything here,” Rich says about his yard. “We raise as much food as we possibly can so that we can eat from our garden year round.” That means growing nearly all of their own vegetables, herbs, tree fruits such as apples, pears and peaches, and small fruits like blackberries, currants and grapes.
The orchard was the first thing Rich and Wendy established, in the fall of 1988, understanding that fruit trees take time to grow. Perennial crops—strawberries, raspberries and asparagus—were next. Then came the vegetable garden, which measured 100 by 100 feet the first year and today covers more than an acre. Later, they added the herb garden, which measures about 40 by 40 feet and is filled with 75 different kinds of herbs.
The newest addition to the garden is a hoop house, a moveable greenhouse made with a metal frame covered in plastic. This past winter, the Tobiaszes put the hoop house over their large salad greens bed. “It works well using just the heat of the sun to keep plants warm,” Rich says. “Without any additional heating, we were picking fresh lettuce for salads up until January.”
They added animals to their “farmette” a few years after establishing the orchard and gardens. “One day we were at a friend’s house and we tasted goat’s milk,” Rich says. “It tasted pretty good, so we decided we should keep and milk goats. Cows were a bit big for the land we have.” They now use goat’s milk as a fresh beverage and to make homemade cheese. Rich also learned that composted goat manure mixed with yard-waste compost was a great soil amendment.
Then came chickens for meat and eggs. The couple later learned that containing chickens in the garden helped reduce insects because chickens eat bugs and fortifiy the soil as they eat and excrete. After Wendy found a magazine article about “chicken tractors,” the couple built one. The chicken tractor is like a small flat-roofed hen house on wheels that the Tobiaszes push from one spot to another. In the winter, the birds live in a coop.
One day, Wendy wanted to learn to spin wool and knit. So, she and Rich bought two Rambouillet sheep, a spinning wheel and wool carders. The pastime became a passion. Today, they own several varieties of wool sheep that Rich shears for fiber.
The Tobiasz property is as beautiful as it is bountiful. Unusual shade trees give parts of the yard an arboretum-like appearance. Ornamental gardens that surround the house and patio feature colorful perennials and splashy annuals like cannas and dahlias.
“It takes about four hours of work a day to keep up things here, sometimes more,” Wendy says. “We have to care for the animals and work on the garden daily, but it is not really work. It takes a lot of time, but it’s our hobby, our life.”