Costs and food safety worries lead city folk to grow their own
By DAISY NGUYEN
Associated Press writer
PASADENA, Calif. — The gray sky cast a gloomy shadow over Southern California one recent summer morning, but the Dervaes family was rejoicing.
A light rain had fallen overnight, quenching the tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, basil and 400 other varieties of plants thriving in the front and back yards of their home 13 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
Jules Dervaes and three of his four grown children work tilling the urban garden full-time. In return, it produces about 6,000 pounds of food a year — enough to feed the Dervaes, their menagerie of ducks, chickens and bunnies and even some diners seeking organic meals at local restaurants.
“We’re farming on just a 10th of an acre here,” Dervaes, 57, said.
They’re at the forefront of a small but growing number of city dwellers who are ripping out lawns and replacing them with vegetable beds and fruit trees.
Beyond the back-to-basics appeal of growing your own food, many backyard farmers say they’re also developing a green thumb out of a fear that much of the commercially grown food found at the supermarket isn’t safe.
“It’s scary what they’re doing to food, you don’t know what’s really in it,” said Dervaes, who started gardening to save money but has become increasingly alarmed at the prospect of eating genetically engineered food.
“So we aimed to get as much food for our dinner table as we could possibly grow ourselves,” he said.
Scott Meyer, editor of Organic Magazine, says hippie types aren’t the only people involved in the back-to-the-earth movement.
“The people who are buying plants and asking ‘How do I grow this?’ are suburbanites, women who are childbearing or have young kids,” Meyer said.
Tony Kienitz, author of “The Year I Ate My Yard,” said having an edible yard makes sense in Southern California, where plants thrive in the year-round sunshine.
“You can grow so much without having to spray pesticides, which can be expensive,” said Kienitz, who lives in Pasadena. “It’s not that wacky to do these kinds of things because the benefits are huge. It’s the best health insurance, in a way.”
Dervaes began cultivating his yards when a drought in the 1990s made watering his lawn too costly. He tore out the grass and broke apart the concrete walkway and tossed in wildflower seeds. When El Nino came, the flowers bloomed.
Around that time, the divorced father also was struggling to make ends meet as a handyman and small business owner. So he used skills he learned tending his father’s garden as a child and began growing edible flowers to sell to restaurants and fruits and vegetables for his family.
The family planted every available space surrounding their cottage-style home. They were shocked when the total harvest amounted to 2,300 pounds after the first year in 2001.
As the garden grew, the family made the most of their small space by installing pergolas so peas and green beans could climb. They also hung pots brimming with strawberries. The garden produced so many vegetables that they began selling them to chefs who prefer to cook with seasonal, locally grown food.
“I got into this for me and my family,” Dervaes said. “It just so happens you can make a living doing this.”
Others say they created edible gardens because they’re worried about America’s dependence on oil and soaring gas prices.
“Most of the produce we get in the supermarket travel for miles and miles by the time it reaches our plates,” said Julia Russell, 69, who started her edible garden in Los Angeles in the early 1980s.
“I thought, gee that’s costly. We have to find another way to supply our urban areas with food. So I decided to see what I could do to create a sustainable lifestyle for myself and my children.”
Russell’s once barren yard now has 28 varieties of fruit and nut trees, and a vegetable garden of tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.
Most of the year, 60 percent of her food comes from her garden, she said.
Russell and Dervaes say the lifestyle isn’t for everyone, adding they’re surprised to see the growing interest in organic home gardening.
Russell said she’s often asked to give tours of her “eco home.”
Dervaes’ said his Web site, pathtofreedom.com, gets 1.5 million hits a month from people around the world.
Some who have toured his home garden have started gardens of their own.
“When I saw their garden, I was blown away,” said Dermot O’Connor, 36, an animator who took up gardening a year ago. “It didn’t occur to me that you can grow that kind of volume in such a small house.
“I knew very little about growing food, but I tried it and was able to grow delicious food,” he said. “Watering the plants went from being a chore to pleasure once I realized it’s easy to make your own food.”