Anna Lebedeva writing on urban homesteading

Jules Dervaes always wanted to work the land.

“I wanted to have acreage and have a farm,” says Jules.

But reality got in the way of his dreams. As a divorced dad, he stayed in the city to educate his young children.

The family had bought a house in the 1980s, 15 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. It was just like any other urban dwelling with a garage, concrete in the backyard, and a grassy lawn in the front yard. Most of the outdoor space was used as a playground for the kids, with a few patches of corn and flowers for hobby gardening.

So, instead of fulfilling his dream of a homestead on wide, open spaces…Jules made it come true on a tenth of an acre in Pasadena.

Today, he and his adult children – Anais, Jordanne, and Justin – run a successful urban homestead. They harvest 7,000 pounds of fresh organic produce a year…feed themselves on $4 per person a day…and sell their surplus.

“We started with a little plot in the corner of the garden, and after a year of experimenting, we learned what to do and what not to do by trial and error,” says Jules. “Over the last 30 years, with healthy soil management, we have turned a small plot of land into a productive mini farm providing a majority of our family’s produce.”

While Jules always liked the idea of homesteading, it was only when he read that GMOs were being introduced into the food chain in the U.S. that he sprang into action.

“I didn’t like that my children would have to eat that; it freaked me out. I wanted to be safe and grow my own food. I didn’t want to buy food in the store anymore. I thought if you can’t go to the country, you bring the country into the city, so I brought the farming life here,” he says.

At the beginning, the Dervaes family planted easy vegetables such as lettuce, radishes, and tomatoes, as well as herbs and edible flowers.

“There is a great restaurant industry here in California, so we sold the edible flowers to restaurants as it was a trend. We had more than 100 different varieties,” says Jules.

On the Dervaes’ homestead, land is used carefully. The raised beds are positioned near each other, the plants grow close together, and vertical space is taken up by climbing plants.

They call their method “square-inch gardening” and say that it emulates how plants grow close together in nature, which keeps the soil moist and weed-free. Smaller leaf vegetables grow under taller vegetables, such as peppers or broccoli, creating multiple layers.

Abundant harvests at the homestead mean that there is plenty of excess produce to sell to the local urban community and restaurants. In 2009, the Dervaes family opened up a farm stand on their front porch, offering organic fruit, vegetables, eggs, jams, and preserves from their own farm.

In addition, they also participate in the local, community-supported agriculture program, selling boxes with farm-fresh, seasonal produce to urbanites who crave organic, sustainable food. The boxes packed with vegetables, fruits, herbs, and jams, as well as baked goods from local food artisans, are sold on a subscription basis with prices ranging from $25 for a small box to $1,200 for an annual subscription.

Self-reliance starts with small steps such as cooking a meal at home, learning a new skill, or trading a homemade cake for a bag of vegetables from the neighbor’s garden.

Image: ©iStock.com/Lorraine Boogich

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