When Theresa Walla left her home in rural Montana at the age of 17 to pursue an illustrious career in journalism, she never dreamed that, 25 years later, she’d end up missing the farm.
But as of July 15, Walla will leave her job as assistant Perspective editor at the Chicago Tribune to dedicate her time to farming out of her backyard garden. After following a journalism career that took her from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to Philadelphia and finally brought her to Chicago 13 years ago, she realized that all she really wants is to return to her roots.
“Lately I’ve started to really miss everything that I grew up with, which was mountains and animals and trees,” she said. “So I’ve just been struggling with this and struggling with this. I finally put my notice in at the Tribune and cried for two days. I really do love the Tribune, but it’s time for me to move on with my life.”
For the nine years Walla has lived in Brookfield, she has been working on gradually expanding the garden in her backyard, which is big enough to hold a greenhouse, a swimming pool, garage and multiple planting beds, with room to spare. Walla grew flowers, vegetables and herbs, sharing with her neighbors any surplus she might have every summer. When she decided to make farming her full-time profession, however, she quickly realized that much more work needed to be done.
Starting in April, Walla and Eddie Flores, a handyman she hired in October to redesign her kitchen and has been employing in odd jobs ever since, began constructing large planting beds and readying hundreds of seedlings for planting in her greenhouse.
It was not a high-tech operation. Rather than tearing up her lawn and tilling the soil, Walla and Flores simply laid sheets of cardboard where they wanted a planter to be, covered that with fresh soil and surrounded the entire thing with large planks of wood. After a while, Walla said, the cardboard will kill the plants underneath and disintegrate into the soil.
While not complicated, the work has been difficult. Walla said that they quintupled her gardening space, and all of the planting soil had to be carted by wheelbarrow from the garage to the planting beds about 50 feet away. Also, given the especially sporadic weather the Chicago area has had this year, taking care of the plants has been a challenge.
“This is the worst year ever to try to expand a garden,” Walla said, adding that for a while she had to have sprinklers going night and day on all the vegetable planters in the backyard.
Because of the weather, Walla didn’t get as much done in her garden as quickly as she hoped, but today the backyard is filled with a whole variety of plants, including tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, radishes, strawberries, sunflowers, day lilies, nasturtiums and hydrangeas, as well as various herbs. The greenhouse is overflowing with plants waiting to be planted, and the ground around it is cluttered with even more flowers and plants waiting for space to open up in the greenhouse.
As for making a living off her garden, at the beginning of the summer Walla sent out hundreds of postcards to people in the surrounding area to announce the beginning of her farming business. So far, she has 10 regular customers who come every week to pick up vegetables, herbs and flowers from her garden.
She charges $400 a season, or about $20 a week. She also has a booth at the North Riverside Farmer’s Market, which is held every Saturday at the North Riverside Village Commons. Walla says there has been great demand for her product.
“People are dying for good food,” she said. “We are the most technologically advanced country in the world, and everything we eat is processed. We should be eating things that are delicious and raw.”
Walla said the growing season will last until late November, at which point she’ll have to start preparing for the next season almost immediately.
“There is a boatload of cleanup, mulching and planning to do,” she said. “Seeds need to be planted in earnest beginning in February, and planting can start in March. So the break really is quite short.”
While this first year has proved successful, however, Walla isn’t sure if she has enough room in her backyard to make her farming operations sustainable.
“It’ll feed my customers, but it won’t to feed the world,” she said. “Now that I’ve decided that I really, really love this, I think I need more land.”
Walla said ideally one day she’d like to have a plot of land big enough to own a flock of chickens and possibly some goats. She’s considering moving back out west to be with her family, which, along with farming, has also suddenly begun to mean more to her.
“I can’t do this career stuff solo anymore,” Walla said. “Family is important. I never thought it was because I left home so young. I was only 17 and all I wanted to do was live in a big city and live and breathe journalism.”
While her passion for journalism has waned in the past few years, Walla said she won’t be giving it up completely. Even after she leaves the Tribune full-time, she plans to work on a few more projects for the paper, and hopes to do some freelance editing or writing work in the future. She said it wasn’t the work itself that finally drove her away, but the fact that it had to be done indoors behind a desk all day.
“I did that for about 25 years,” she said, “and now I kind of just want to sit out in the garden with the dog and cats.”