by Justin Clark
The Dervaes family grows more than 300 plant species, including fruits, vegetables and flowers, in their compact Pasadena organic garden. Photo by Stephen Dabrowski/Natural Home Magazine
For most people, eating organic means a trip to the local whole- foods store and, often, a hit to their wallets. For the Dervaes family, eating organic requires only a trip to the garden. The family of four raises 3 tons of food each year — enough to supply three-quarters of their diet and maintain a thriving organic produce business to boot.
Jules Dervaes, along with his three grown children, lives on 1/5 of an acre in suburban Pasadena and cultivates about half the property, or 1/10 of an acre. Given that the average American’s diet requires 1.2 acres of farmland per person, the Dervaeses are eating quite well off one-fiftieth of the land the rest of us require.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture reports that most California corn or rice farms produce an annual yield of less than a 1/2-ton per acre and the average bean farm 1/5-ton per acre. The Dervaeses’ operation is about 60 to 150 times as efficient as their industrial competitors, without relying on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
“Everybody wants more land,” Dervaes says. “We decided to find out how much we could accomplish on this piece of land.”
Path to freedom
Dervaes had been running a small lawn-maintenance business six years ago when he and his family started their self-sufficiency garden project, dubbed Path to Freedom. They started the garden because of their growing concerns about genetically modified organisms and other potentially harmful additives in mass-market produce. Since then, the Dervaeses have raised everything from asparagus and jicama to kiwis and cotton — all of it organic. They’ve been successful using space-maximizing gardening techniques, including raised earth beds and potted plants that hang between trellised plants.
Jules Dervaes’ genius lies in his ability to adapt his back-to-the-land vision to an urban environment. Ultimately, he realized that in addition to providing food for his family, this garden also could help sustain them financially if he sold its bounty to local businesses. Rather than competing head-on with larger produce suppliers, the family raises niche products that only a city full of gourmet restaurants could support: nasturtiums and Khaki Campbell duck eggs, for example.
The Dervaeses’ garden exemplifies both sustainability and frugality: manure (sweepings from local stables) used as fertilizer, trellises made from old bicycle wheels, planter dividers made from recycled glass bottles and homemade pots-within-pots that save water.
In addition, the family drives one vehicle, a black Chevy Suburban that runs on biodiesel refined from discarded cooking oil provided by local restaurants. The Dervaeses reach out to their community by using their garage to screen environmental films and by holding seminars on going solar. They also took advantage of Pasadena’s home-greening rebates by installing a $14,000, 2-kilowatt solar-cell system for less than half the retail cost.
The family is installing a wastewater reclamation system, a dual-flush toilet and a composting toilet. Already, they rely on hand-crank appliances and a pedal-power grain mill.
Urban gardening tips
“Anyone can do this, if they have dedication,” says Dervaes of his wildly productive garden. “Don’t be afraid to start small with something like herbs that you know will survive.” For aspiring urban gardeners, Dervaes has plenty of advice.
1. Get to know your backyard’s ecology. As an example, Dervaes points out a patch in his yard that doesn’t appear to be shaded but that feels cool. He uses a canopy with a shade cloth and squeezes out one more round of lettuce in summer.
2. Let natural ecosystems develop. Dervaes recommends exercising patience when aphids invade because the solution already may be in the local insect population. Recalling Path to Freedom’s first infestation, he says: “I tried spraying soapy water, but I actually had to let the aphids spread. Their natural ladybug predators needed the aphids to max out before they got to work.” Now, says Dervaes, an entrenched ladybug and praying mantis population takes care of most of his pests.
3. Keep a nursery. Dervaes keeps a large workbench with dozens of seedlings that he uses as guinea pigs to help him figure out when to plant. If one type of plant fails, he simply pulls it out and substitutes another. He also rotates plants that like it hot and dry (beans, cucumbers, corn and peppers) with cool crops (kale, mesclun, snow peas).
4. Start a skyscraper farm. Most of the Dervaeses’ backyard was initially covered in concrete, so they experimented with multistory container plantings, with each plant occupying its own “story” in the skyscraper (for instance, broccoli, a tall, strong plant, paired with endive, a low-growing salad green. Dervaes plants three or sometimes four crops vertically, using trellises to support vine plants that grow above their downstairs neighbors.
5. Take a holistic approach. “It’s so important to feed the soil,” Dervaes says. He fertilizes between plantings using a mixture of kitchen compost, bat guano pellets and droppings from his rabbits, ducks and chickens. Every week during growing season, he dilutes 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of a kelp fertilizer in a gallon of water and sprays it directly on the plants. (Salad greens, such as lettuce, should not be eaten right after contact with kelp fertilizer, especially without washing, because it can leave a fishy taste.)