Living on an Urban Homestead: An Interview with Jules Dervaes

The urban homestead is a special kind of city farm. This example from Pasadena, California, shows that urban self-sufficiency can be more than a dream.

Dervaes House

The Dervaes’ front yard, which has been transformed to feed people, livestock and wildlife.

Photo by Jules Darvaes

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Want to grow food, but have nothing larger than a balcony, windowsill or wall? Edible Cities (Permanent Publications, 2013), by Judith Anger, Immo Fiebrig and Martin Schnyder, is a gardening book with a difference. The book shows you why the urban landscape can be a great place for permaculture. This excerpt, which features an interview with suburban homesteader Jules Dervaes, is from Chapter 5, “Designer Shoes Off —Work Boots On.”

Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Edible Cities.

Idea: Jules Dervaes

Place: Detached residence outside Los Angeles, next to the Pasadena Freeway intersection, California, USA

Project: Urban homestead, 800 square meters with 400 square-meter garden

Jules Dervaes is a family man. In a previous life he was a hippy – and now he is hip, as his youngest daughter Jordanne puts it. His first experiments in selfsufficiency go back to New Zealand in the early 1970s, when he also learnt to keep bees. He returned to the US in 1975 and settled in Florida, before he and his family moved to Pasadena in 1984 to buy the land they still live on today.

Over the years he has worked as a landscaper, beekeeper, gardener and leather craftsman. He has also found time to study theology. In the 1990s droughts became increasingly frequent, and water prices in California rose steadily. Jules realised that keeping a lawn in a dry climate is a completely pointless luxury. The family decided to cover the entire lawn of their home with 15 cm bark mulch and turn the area into vegetable beds. When genetically modified food arrived in the supermarkets in 2000, the Dervaes’ lifestyle changed radically yet again. It was important to them to avoid eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and to achieve a high level of selfsufficiency in food, energy and mobility. Vegetable production was intensified in all available areas (paved areas, driveway, front and back garden), and plantings were extended to multiple layers including vertical surfaces. Chicken, ducks and goats provide them with eggs, milk and manure. The pick-up truck is run on biodiesel produced in their own garage; the vegetable oil comes from the restaurants that buy their produce. These days, Jules and three of his children – Anais (37), Justin (33) and Jordanne (29) – are working full-time on the city farm. Any surplus they produce is sold and the money spent on flour, rice, sugar, beans and... chocolate!

We Spoke to Jules Dervaes:

JD: “Regarding the ecological problems of the world, I am absolutely clear that politicians can’t change anything and big business won’t change anything. I knew from early on that we have to do things ourselves, we have to solve the food crisis. When you know how to grow your own food, this is a big part of autonomy. I am convinced that growing your own food is one of the most dangerous activities in the world – you are in danger of becoming liberated!

For us, urban homesteading is a way of life. When we started off, we were almost the only ones. Of course there were always people who had a few chickens in the backyard, but when we started in 2001 this way of life was still pretty new. For me, an urban homestead is something that never stops developing. There are 10 ecological principles that I follow:

1. Produce your own food on your own land.

2. Use renewable energy and reduce electricity consumption.

3. Use alternative fuels and/or means of transport.

4. Keep animals for food and manure.

5. Reduce waste by composting and re-use.

6. Re-use greywater and harvest rainwater.

7. Live simply: Cook and preserve food, make crafts.

8. Do it yourself: Repairs and simple construction work.

9. Work at home or from home.

10. Be a good neighbour rather than a good businessman.

What model are you following for your garden?

JD: “Basically I copied the model of my father. He had not a square inch of lawn, even if it was mostly an ornamental garden. When I was a child I remember the garden being completely overgrown, there were plants everywhere. The garden was completely natural, almost like a jungle. My dad never used chemicals.

I transferred the system to fruit and vegetables, after reading a few books on the subject. Apart from that, it was all trial and error.”

What did your neighbours think about what you were doing?

JD: “Initially I was seen as a freak. Californians are lawn fetishists, they are addicted to the look of a pretty lawn. Nobody understood what this was about – even I didn’t always have an idea what I was doing. In Florida where I grew up conditions are completely different, and we had about 20 times more space than here. The neighbours’ kids often came round and asked our children what was up with their dad, whether I was off my head. But nowadays the garden is pretty well organised. We have received prizes from the City of Pasadena.

Our neighbours have started to replace their lawns with native plants or even vegetables, to save water. This is a semi-desert, and lawns don’t belong in this landscape. Last year we had another drought, and the city government even started paying people to get rid of their lawns. Things are changing; it’s no longer about appearances but about survival, about saving resources and water.”

Where does the water for your garden come from?

JD: “This is the biggest challenge. We tend to get either too much rain, or not enough. Overall rainfall is very low and unpredictable, which is why we have created a water-saving garden. The water for our city is imported from the Colorado River, hundreds of miles away. There is just not enough rainwater for all the people here, so imports are part of our culture. In future, this will create many difficulties.

“Our homestead has no well and not a lot of rain, so we’re still dependent on mains water at the moment. But each year we make our plantings more compact, to reduce the need for irrigation. The food forest we are creating will save a lot of water.”

What happens to the water when it rains?

JD: “Many people around here are afraid of having standing surface water, so they try to drain it away as fast as possible. Driveways have a gradient for run-off into the road, and from there into the storm drains and eventually the Pacific. We want to keep the water on our land, so we have removed concrete surfaces to enable water to enter the soil. In the past, the sloped surfaces meant that run-off would carry away a lot of humus and fertility. We are also trying to minimise our water consumption, which is not always easy in an old house like ours.”

Presumably you don’t use artificial fertilisers?

JD: “When we started we used to buy organic material in sacks from the garden centre. Nowadays we have turned things around: we are producing a lot of organic waste, including manure from chickens, ducks and goats. We now have a cycle of nutrients: whatever we compost becomes food for the vegetables in the following year. There is still room for improvement, but it’s very satisfying that we are self-sufficient in our fertility needs and can stay at home more.”

The family has produced a 15 minute video of their smallholding and gives presentations of their urban homestead on trade shows, fairs and other events. As well as running a farm shop, they have created another income stream by offering courses, guided tours and consultations. The three Dervaes children all focus on different aspects of the farm: Justin is the techno-wizard and the green fingered plant expert, keen to plant up any available space. Anais processes most of the harvest and loves knitting and other craft work. Jordanne as the family’s computer geek is mostly in charge of maintaining the homestead website. As a self-taught veterinarian, she is a bit of an animal whisperer and looks after the animals’ health. Most of the city’s vets have no experience with livestock and are also quite expensive.

We look forward to finding out whether a systematic application of permaculture design can push up yields even further in the future, while reducing the need for external inputs and labour.

Urban Homestead Statistics

Yield per Year in kg:

2001 (first year): 1,043kg fruit and vegetables
2010: 3,188kg fruit and vegetables, 1,013 eggs (chickens, ducks), 60kg honey
Average over 10 years: 2,278kg fruit and vegetables per year

Over 400 varieties of fruit, vegetable and herbs:

• 60 percent of the harvest is eaten by the family (4 people)
• 30 percent produce for sale
• 10 percent animal feed

Organic fruit, veg and edible flowers are sold to restaurants, caterers and private customers. Turnover in 2010 was $20,000.

Dervaes' Urban Homestead Energy Production

14,500 kWh solar electricity over 8 years; 8,000 litres biodiesel over 7 years.

Dervaes' Urban Homestead Water Consumption

2004: 4,000 l/day (first measurement)
2009: 2,000 l/day

90 percent of water goes into food production. Establishing a multi-storey polyculture was the biggest factor in halving consumption in only five years. The canopy prevents evaporation by shading the ground, and the density of the planting adds to the favourable moist microclimate.

Want to learn more about urban homesteading? Read Growing Edible Mushrooms in the City for more information.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Edible Cities, by Judith Anger, Immo Fiebrig and Martin Schnyder, and published by Permanent Publications, 2013.