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Pasadena Paradise: An Organic, Urban Vegetable Garden

A Southern California family adapts their back-to-the-land philosophy to an urban garden with astonishingly productive results.

| May/June 2006

  • Tangy, delicious elderberries from the garden
  • Chickens provide fresh eggs, organic pest control and manure for compost. For more on keeping backyard birds, see “City Chicks,”?page 62.
  • Not just for show, the Devaeses’ front yard contains nearly 95 percent edible, useful or medicinal plants.

  • Photos by Stephen Dabrowski
  • Multi-story gardening allows the Dervaeses to grow at least four different crops in a one-square-foot area. Twining plants can grow on arbors, while lightweight plants grow in hanging baskets. On the ground, the family grows stronger, taller plants, such as broccoli, above smaller, lower-growing plants, such as endive.
  • Jules Dervaes tends his backyard garden.
  • The family grows more than 300 plant species­­­, including several varieties of peppers, heirloom tomatoes, salad mixes, eggplant, pumpkins, kale, squash, lima beans, herbs and edible flowers.
  • The garden makes money through sales of some of its organic produce––edible flowers, mixed salad greens, eggs and unusual varieties of heirloom tomatoes––to local restaurants.

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 only requires a trip behind the house. The family of four raises three tons of food each year—enough to supply three-quarters of their diet and maintain a thriving organic produce business to boot.

Jules, along with his son Justin and daughters Anaïs and Jordanne, lives on one-fifth of an acre in suburban Pasadena, California, and cultivates about half the property, or one-tenth 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.

Let’s put those numbers—one-tenth of an acre, three tons of food—in perspective. Granted, comparing monoculture (single-crop) farms with the Dervaeses’ (300 varieties of flora and counting) is literally like comparing apples and oranges. As a means of comparison, the California Department of Food and Agriculture reports that most California corn or rice farms produce an annual yield of less than a half-ton per acre and the average bean farm one-fifth of a 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,” Jules says. “We decided to find out how much we could accomplish on this piece of land.”



Path to freedom

Jules had been running a small lawn-maintenance business six years ago when, in response to his growing concerns about genetically modified organisms and other potentially harmful additives in mass-market produce, and with no formal horticultural training, he and his family started their self- sufficiency garden project, dubbed “Path to Freedom.” The Dervaeses have raised everything from asparagus to jicama, kiwis to cotton––all of it organic––thanks to Pasadena’s lengthy growing season and the family’s dedication. They’ve been successful using space-maximizing gardening techniques, including raised earth beds and potted plants that hang between trellised plants.



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