Urban Homestead: Local, Organic and in the City
by Organic Connections Magazine
Editor’s notes: The Dervaes family in Pasadena, California has converted 1/10 of an acre of urban land from concrete slab to gardens, and grows up to three tons of produce per year right there! Imagine what kind of food abundance and vitality would be available to us and our neighbors if those of us with access to land and water produced food where we live.
Dervaes Gardens sits practically on top of a Pasadena, California, freeway and is only blocks away from the famous Rose Bowl. Outside are all the trappings of twenty-first-century life: automobiles, satellite dishes, supermarkets, car washes, and stores carrying produce brought thousands of miles for the convenience of their customers. But inside, Jules Dervaes and his children have created what they call an Urban Homestead. Virtually every square inch of land they have available to them—a tenth of an acre in all—is utilized for growing their own food. In addition to the hundreds of varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers, there is a beehive for honey, ducks and chickens for eggs, and goats for numerous purposes.
Finding Dervaes Gardens is truly a trip back in time. You travel to its location by first taking a crowded, bustling freeway, then exiting at a busy, wide boulevard, and then turning off on a side street. If you carefully search the street for the proper address, you’ll most likely spot it without having to find the number: beautiful blooms and plants crowd all the way up to the iron gate and are even thriving along the curb strip, where normally you would find either poorly surviving grass or simply dirt.
You walk up to the porch and are warmly greeted by Jules’ daughter Anais, wearing a floor-length dress and carrying apples in her hands. She is gathering them for one of today’s chores: making apple butter.
Now, for one brief moment, you pause, fully expecting to turn back around and see a dirt road out front and, beyond that, orchards and fields dotted here and there with wood-frame houses languishing under the blue sky and bright summer sun. Perhaps a buckboard would be going by, pulled by a horse, the driver tipping his hat good morning to you.
Such a vision would be in perfect context to where you are currently standing; for back then everyone would have been doing as Jules and his family are now: growing their own food, and selling the surplus to customers and local eateries. It wasn’t until the advent of inexpensive long-distance shipping and scientific meddling with crop growth that it became more convenient to purchase produce at the local supermarket. Over time, the practice of growing one’s own food—and indeed the entire culture of local farming—became a relic of the past.
But it was just this future shock that brought Jules Dervaes to seek out the ways of his ancestors.
“I’ve had a garden wherever I’ve had my own home,” Dervaes told Organic Connections. “I emigrated to New Zealand in the seventies and started my first garden there, learning how to grow my own food. Then I came back to Florida and put a garden there. Then when I bought this home in ’85, I put in a garden here—it was just a little 15 foot by 15 foot section of the backyard. But there came a point when we had been using Taco Bell taco shells that they got recalled by Vons because they had genetically modified corn in them; and I thought that if they made that mistake with one genetically modified crop, why wouldn’t there be others? You can’t tell genetically modified products from the outside; they’re not marked and they look like any other product. So I just said, ‘I can’t do that to my children.’ I told them, 'We’re going to turn this into a farm whether we like it or not.’ So that’s what happened here.”
Because the property had to be converted entirely—the backyard consisted in the main of a huge slab of concrete and a garage—it was a several-year process. However, in their first year they produced 2,000 pounds of produce. Dervaes was very surprised at the high amount. “We all thought it was a fluke,” he said. “Nobody could believe it, and I thought maybe we had beginner’s luck or something. But we stuck with it, and then in 2004 I decided to push the envelope a little further and gave my adult children the challenge to make 6,000 pounds—three tons—in a year. I think we did it because it would have been an embarrassment if we hadn’t. But you push yourself, set yourself high goals; and, just to make sure, we did it again in the next year.”
They’ve had a few ups and downs since, not the least of which is the drought that California has experienced in the last few years. But they’ve still managed to maintain high yields, feed themselves, and create a thriving business selling the surplus to local organic markets and restaurants.
“One of the blessings of the garden, besides giving us our diet, was we actually had a surplus, which was a shock,” Dervaes related. “I don’t know if you’ve ever thought what goes into a pound of lettuce; you can do a pound of tomatoes, bingo, but with lettuce you have to keep cutting—there’s a lot of area. All that stuff is really lightweight, so you’re collecting lettuce or greens like it’s nobody’s business, and I just thought we couldn’t do that. But when we finally perfected a little technique, we were able to sell to local restaurants and caterers. They’re taking off because of the local, fresh organic movement; but also, more than organics, because it’s local food. So the ones we’ve been selling to are getting good business.”
Over the years, Dervaes has learned how to grow his crops without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. He became an expert in composting and learned to add minerals to his soil with rock dust (a process called “remineralization”) and worm castings. He fights pests with natural methods, using predators—praying mantises, wasps and birds—and organic pesticides such as neem oil.
As for weeds, he controls them mainly by not giving them room to grow. “I crowd them out,” Dervaes said. “I use mulch heavily, and then I’ll put plants close together. I’ll personally do all the weeding when they’re young, and if they don’t go to seed and you keep at it, you can win the battle of weeds without herbicides. But the regimen is to not have any room for them and to not let them seed at all.”
When it comes to his choice of crops, he decided to go far “outside the box” of what is conventionally available. “One of the things we wanted most of all was diversity. We’re prone to go for things that people have left by the wayside. Modern agriculture has come in and said, 'This is your standard carrot,’ or ‘This is your standard lettuce; this is your standard squash.’ We said to heck with that—we’re going to go find some forgotten varieties. So we searched the world over and found exotic squashes, exotic cucumbers, exotic tomatoes, and more. We like that because we’re saving them for the next generation.
One example he likes to show visitors is a variety of squash called tromboncino. The fully ripe squash is some five feet long. “We take this everywhere and we show it off,” said Dervaes. “It’s a symbol of what we try to go for—heirloom stuff. You can’t worry about what the supermarket carries; you have to make your own diet where you live. Eat locally and grow locally. We’ve made a mission out of that one.”
In walking around the gardens, you soon discover that fruits and vegetables are not the only non-human residents here. Within and behind the building that was once a garage, eight chickens, four ducks and two goats make their homes. They provide eggs, compost and companionship.
The chickens are not average varieties. Two examples are a hen that is brown with black speckles and another that is black with broadly feathered legs. “We’re trying to save these heirloom chickens because the modern chickens just lay eggs,” Dervaes explained. “The speckled one is a Belgian variety and they lay small eggs, but they’re just pets and we also use them for compost. The black chicken is a cochin, a Chinese variety, and was one of the originals; in human terms she’s about ninety or a hundred and ten years old. She’s gone past her egg-laying capacity but she still eats the food and is good for compost.”
Dervaes then points to a duck. “The ducks are also egg-layers. That’s a khaki campbell duck; it’s a heritage breed from England. It gives some great eggs.”
About the goats? “Goats are for fertilizer. They also eat things that we can’t get rid of, like this pile of sticks and leaves. They’ll eat everything, including rose thorns, so they’re our trash compactors.”
At this point, your visit to the Dervaes Gardens is coming to an end. You’ve long forgotten the world that lurks just outside, that modern place where wonders like this are not at all commonplace. You’ve been totally captivated by the myriad smells from the crops and herbs, the sounds of the chirping birds and the buzzing of bees.
But if Dervaes has his way, this is only the beginning. “In the old days, people had relationships with nature and connections with animals,” he said. “When you remove that and put it in a factory someplace far away, people forget about it. When you have a different relationship with your animals and with your plants, when you treat them real well, they respond. Your own health and the health of the planet are intimately related, and as a society we’ve gotten away from that. So we just brought this all to pass in the city, in our Urban Homestead, and we’re spreading the word far and wide.”
To find out more about Dervaes Gardens, visit their website (fully created and maintained by Jules’ daughter Jordanne) at www.dervaesgardens.com.
You can also find out about the Dervaes family and their continuing journey by following their blog at www.urbanhomestead.org.
For more information on soil remineralization, visit www.remineralize.org.
About the Author
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