Julie Jesseph-Balaa and a customer at the Highland Park Farmers Market discussing Peurvian mint. |Photo by Christopher Nyerges

Lessons from a backyard farmer

2020 Christopher Nyerges December Editions

By Christopher Nyerges

These days, more and more city-dwellers – including many in Northeast Los Angeles – are growing their own food, even in little backyards. Shifting to homegrown food is a way to be part of the solution to world-wide ecological woes from within one’s own sphere of influence.

It is also an illustration of permaculture in action. Permaculture, the topic of one of my recent columns, is the ancient art, practice and philosophy of sustainable food production upon given plots of land.

The backyard farmer: Julie Jesseph-Balaa | Photo by Christopher Nyerges

For example, recently I observed a vendor at the Highland Park Farmers Market, Julie Jesseph-Balaa, who was selling less-common foods and instructing people how to grow them.

The booth had bowls of lamb’s quarter, New Zealand spinach, California pepper seeds, cactus pads, as well as a variety of potted foods, such as purple tree collard and sapote. As I walked by, I overheard Jesseph-Balaa explaining that all of these plants can be used to create sustainable gardens. 

One customer was purchasing a bag of lamb’s quarter greens, which is a type of wild spinach related to quinoa. Jesseph-Balaa was explaining that, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, lamb’s quarter is one of the most nutritious plants in the world. “I can’t believe that I’ve been pulling this weed out of my yard and throwing it in the trash,” the customer told Jesseph-Balaa.

The lamb’s quarter plant is an annual, which means it lives for only one season. But  Jesseph-Balaa explained how she is able to extend its harvesting season by a few months by carefully pinching off bags of the leaves every week.

She does the same sort of sustainable harvesting with New Zealand spinach, a sprawling perennial that is native to the west coast of South America. You plant it once and it just grows and grows, creating leaves that can be pinched off for salads and soups, explained Jesseph-Balaa, who clearly considers New Zealand spinach a must for any sustainable garden. 

Another of her popular foods is the prickly pear cactus pad, or nopales, a staple in Mexican cuisine for centuries. Jesseph-Balaa sells the pads ready to be cleaned and eaten, as well as in pots which can be grown as a border plant. Studies have indicated that prickly pear cactus is helpful in managing high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.  

One of Jesseph-Balaa’s unique food items is the purple tree collard. Unlike most collards, which are annuals, purple tree collard is a perennial. As it grows, it can be cut back to keep it manageable in the garden, while sections of the purple collard stems – about four inches in length – can be cut and rooted to produce new plants.

At her table at the Farmers Market, Jesseph-Balaa had a list of all the plants that anyone in Northeast L.A. could grow in their yards to create a perennial, sustainable garden for the least amount of work. The list includes trees like olives, citrus, and figs, as well as grape vines, asparagus, onions, Jerusalem artichoke, potatoes, tree collards, and, of course, prickly pear cactus.

As part of the permaculture philosophy, Jesseph-Balaa and her family also recycle their kitchen and yard scraps by composting them into soil. “It’s very rewarding to do these techniques because I feel it’s we should all be doing,” said Jesseph-Balaa. “Sometimes it’s hard, but it makes you feel good for doing it.”


[The Highland Park Farmers Market occurs every Tuesday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., with the entrance at Marmion Way and Avenue 58. Masks are required. Christopher Nyerges can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com]


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1 thought on “Lessons from a backyard farmer

  1. Great article!
    Wonderful thing Ms Jesseph-Balaa
    educating us to sustain this World of Ours including ourselves! 🙂

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