In this month’s Grower’s Spotlight, we talk with Katie Grauer, a mortgage lender and home gardener in North Point Breeze, who has a background in fine art, public policy, and urban development. Her interests outside of work range from drawing, painting, and photography to backyard gardening. Full disclosure–Katie knows Grow Pittsburgh well, being married to one of our staff members (Ryan Walsh), and she helps take care of the chickens at Shiloh Farm. She came to gardening on her own, though, and is the lead grower at home. In this spotlight, Katie shares how easily you can grow and eat greens year-round with a little advance planning, a cold frame, and other simple winter growing techniques.
Grow Pittsburgh: What made you want to start growing?
Katie Grauer: The urge to garden may have come from feeling a lack of space. I grew up with a lot of woods around me but have always felt like a city person. There was a time when just having potted vegetables on my porch roof in Philadelphia wasn’t satisfying anymore. Once at a Christmas work party, there was a question for everyone to respond to: what have you always wanted to do? I thought, start a real garden! I love the process. I like watching things grow. The way plants change and mature is amazing to me.
GP: Why is growing food important to you?
Katie: Growing food is a source of both pride and stability. Not pride in the sense of “I did this,” but rather “I helped facilitate this.” And to understand the process in some way. And stability in terms of food security, what I like to eat, what foods are important to me, as well my own mental and physical well-being. Gardening is grounding and an excellent reminder of the world outside myself.
GP: What did you most enjoy about your garden this past year?
Katie: I planted a lot of flowers, so maybe the hummingbirds and butterflies that visited the zinnias in late summer. Or the bird parties in our front yard. In all its simplicity, my favorite might actually be the biennial growth and blooming of the hollyhocks. Right now I’m really excited that it’s winter, and I have beautiful greens to pick and eat daily. I used to just plant the garlic, put the garden to bed for the winter, and start planning for spring. But now we get to keep eating from the garden while dreaming up what to grow next season.
GP: What’s your favorite thing to grow?
Katie: Fava beans. No contest. I love that I can start them in February (very cold hardy), they’re quick to sprout, and the plant is so different from other beans. It’s the first thing to grow and bloom in my garden, even before the peas do. The stems are sort of boxy. You can eat the leaves. And the flowers are beautiful, orchid-like. And then the pods! So large. Fava beans are delicious and totally nutritious. Yes, it can be a labor of love to process and eat them, but it’s worth it. I love favas!
GP: What advice or tips would you give fellow gardeners for growing through the winter?
Katie: Anyone can do it! (And many do.) My first inkling of growing year-round came from Eliot Coleman’s book Four-Season Harvest. Many things won’t grow through the winter, but there are plants that will either continue to grow or become dormant without dying above ground. He uses cold frames, tunnels, and mobile hoop houses. I don’t have that much space, but a simple cold frame and a low tunnel are enough for me to grow cold hardy plants like arugula, spinach, kale, broccoli rabe, and specific lettuces that are bred to withstand winter temperatures. I’m also seeing if I can overwinter my fava beans to get a headstart in spring.
Of course, you have to experiment. You can read a million books, but you have to put it in practice at some point. I read and realized that if you can grow through a Maine winter (as Coleman does), you can definitely grow food in the mild winters we have here in Pittsburgh.
The cold frame and tunnel are pretty simple to put together. The cold frame is basically a mini-greenhouse. I bought scrap wood and an old window from Construction Junction for the cold frame for something like $10. It’s worth taking some time to scrape, caulk, and coat the window before putting the cold frame outside. Last winter, we got enough snow here to push the glass out of the window frame, which could have been avoided if I had caulked and treated it. You can purchase tunnel fabric just about anywhere, from garden supply places to big box stores. Since I knew I was using it specifically for winter growing, I bought a heavier tunnel fabric. Instead of stretching it over hoops, I used a couple lengths of wire garden fencing to make sure that when it snows it doesn’t collapse (tip found online).
GP: What has been the biggest challenge you faced in home gardening through winter?
Katie: Slugs were a challenge. The cold frame has been the best answer to them so far. Early in the fall I planted starts, and the slugs ate everything other than the arugula, leaving me to reseed much later than I wanted. I don’t think I had viable seedlings again until mid-October. Right now I have a low tunnel with great arugula and broccoli raab that they still seem to reach and slowly munch. But the cold frame is home to lettuces, spinach, mache, and scallions. Four walls have done the trick, so far.
GP: How has Grow Pittsburgh impacted your journey as a grower?
Katie: I LOVE Grow Pittsburgh! When Ryan and I moved here from Vermont several years ago, Grow Pittsburgh was a warm welcome to gardening in the city. We quickly discovered a school garden in our neighborhood and volunteered there. I started learning a lot by just observing the other plots at the school garden. That really opened my eyes to companion planting and thinking about gardens in a more dynamic way. There’s a whole ecosystem that enriches the soil and gives back to future successions of crops.
I also really appreciate buying amazing starts in the spring, being a member of the Garden Resource Center with its compost and mulch, and tapping into the wealth of knowledge that folks in the Grow Pittsburgh community are happy to share.
GP: Do you have plans to evolve or keep growing in the future?
Katie: Always! Last year I tried growing more flowers than I ever had, including lots of dahlias, and this year I’m really trying to hone the four season growing. My goal has been to be able to provide my own salad greens year round. The long-term push has been to improve the soil–from serious grass and compacted clay to workable loaminess without raised beds–and understand what grows well. Ultimately I imagine a space with lateral and vertical structures, trellises for peas, then beans and squash. If I’m lucky, in 50 years I’ll have some kind of understanding of how all these plants interact and do their amazing things. For now, I’m still experimenting and learning.
Katie’s winter growing setup and produce
Check out Katie’s backyard setup and the fruits of her labor
Scrap wood and an old window from Construction Junction turned into a winter growing space
The cold frame is home to lettuce, spinach, mache, and scallions
Low tunnel with arugula and broccoli raab
Winter garden yield (yum!)