In this month’s Grower’s Spotlight, we are featuring Laura Kuster. Laura is a native of the Pittsburgh region and currently resides in Swissvale. She is one of the organizers of the fast-approaching Swissvale Edible Garden Tour which is taking place on July 23. We talked with Laura to learn more about her passion for gardening, the history of the Garden Tour, and hear her gardening advice for beginners. Read on to hear how she got involved with our tool lending library, the GRC, took initiative to organize the garden tour and uses toilet bowl lids in her garden.

Grow Pittsburgh: Tell us a bit about yourself?
Laura Kuster: I grew up in Murrysville, just east of Pittsburgh, and I’ve been living in East End neighborhoods since coming back home from college. I’ve always worked in nonprofits and currently coordinate education projects for the Group Against Smog and Pollution, a 53-year-old air quality watchdog organization based in Regent Square.

In 2016, I bought my cute old house here in Swissvale. A major motivation to find a house was the chance to establish a stable, more permanent gardening space after a few years of rigging up very temporary gardens at rented places. I’m so glad I ended up in Swissvale – I’ve met so many people here who are invested in the community and really care about the place and people.

GP: When did you first begin gardening?
Laura: I always liked visiting gardens and The Secret Garden movie from the 90s, but I didn’t garden much myself until right after college, when I was serving a summer term in AmeriCorps in Duquesne with a program related to the Braddock Youth Project. We were supervising groups of teens working on different projects, including a community garden. Around then I began experimenting at starting my own veggie plants from seed under some cheap DIY grow lights in my basement. At that point I didn’t know anyone else doing it, and it was just something that interested me and made for a good hobby.

When I bought my house six years ago, I started removing a section of grass every year to convert to growing space. I tried not to take on too much at a time and to take my time figuring out the relatively small space. I enjoy cooking and baking and having fresh cut flowers in the house, so using the harvest is the main thing that keeps me motivated, aside from just really loving to spend time in the garden.

GP: Why do you choose to grow your own food or garden?
Laura: I love spending time outside and I love cooking, so gardening is a great fit for me. I’m interested in eating local and being aware of how food makes its way to consumers.

GP: What’s your favorite thing to grow?
Laura:  I like to grow a nice variety of perennials and annuals, with about an even split between flowers for cutting and food plants. It’s not that original, but my favorite things to grow and harvest are probably the easiest and highest yielding: tomatoes and cut flowers, especially zinnias. I grow as many different varieties as I can fit in my space.

It’s hard to pick a favorite amongst everything else, but I really love growing peppers, garlic, onions, raspberries, and carrots. Over the past few years I’ve been starting to establish more edible perennials, like herbs, berries, and asparagus. I love to see all the birds and pollinators in the garden, so I keep them in mind when choosing what to grow, as well.

“The Swissvale Edible Garden Tour is a great event for anyone interested in gardens or who just would like to spend a Saturday wandering around outside. I’d especially recommend the tour to new gardeners or people thinking about establishing their first garden.”

GP: Can you tell us the history of the Swissvale Edible Garden Tour?
Laura: In 2019, a group of us organized the first Swissvale Edible Garden Tour. We’re currently planning the 4th annual tour, which will be on Saturday, July 23, 2022. It’s been such an amazing way to connect with people in the neighborhood, along with garden-loving people from all around Pittsburgh. Gardeners tend to love to talk about gardening, so a fun, free, relaxed event focusing on visiting a wide variety of home gardens is a great opportunity to build community. The event is free to attend, and funds raised through plant sales, sponsorships, and donations cover expenses and support the Swissvale Community Garden.

We focus on gardens that include food plants because access to nutritious and exciting food is a major reason why a lot of us garden. The tour is a chance to demystify how you can grow in pretty much any space or with any budget. It’s important to normalize just getting started and learning gradually over time, rather than expecting an Instagram-perfect dream garden right away. Spending time in real gardens with real gardeners is invaluable.

GP: What can folks expect to see at the Garden Tour? 
Laura: The Swissvale Edible Garden Tour is a great event for anyone interested in gardens or who just would like to spend a Saturday wandering around outside. I’d especially recommend the tour to new gardeners or people thinking about establishing their first garden. And a lot of attendees are people who’ve been gardening themselves for years and are interested in seeing what other gardeners do in small-ish urban spaces – those are the folks who often end up spending a lot of time chatting with gardeners and run out of time! Kids are also very welcome, and some of the gardeners put out things like chalk and bubbles.

This year’s event is Saturday, July 23rd. From 10AM-2PM, there will be Open Gardens all around Swissvale – visitors can stop by an info table to pick up a physical guide or visit our website for an online map. You can walk, drive, or bike around to the gardens. Swissvale only covers about a square mile but, like a lot of neighborhoods here, there’s a big hill to keep in mind. You can start at any of the gardens and visit as many or as few as you like or have the energy or time for while they’re open. At each garden, the gardener will be there to show you around and answer any questions. The event guide will indicate if a garden is accessed via any steps. We’ll also have a few water stations and highly encourage visitors to bring reusable water bottles.

Starting at 2PM, we’ll meet up at the Swissvale Community Garden for a celebratory picnic! We did this for the first tour in 2019 and are really excited to bring back this part of the event. We’ll have activities for all ages and food to share. 

GP: How did you get involved with the Gardens Tour? Any favorite memories from a previous Gardens Tour?
Laura: I’m involved in the Swissvale Community Action Committee, an informal group of residents who work on different community projects, and a couple friends who are also involved in the group started talking about this idea, which I had also been thinking about. We got a few other people interested in planning it and put the first tour together. I love that it’s just a resident-led project. It gives us a lot of flexibility.

One of my favorite memories is our opening night last year – our format was a little different, and we had events throughout that whole weekend. Our opening night was held under tents in the yard at the Pittsburgh Mennonite Church, right next to their garden and chicken coop. We had a “homegrown tomato swap” table. Farmer Girl Eb was the keynote speaker, and we also had a panel of local gardeners talk about how they compost and advice for people getting into composting or vermicomposting. It was great to see them share their expertise and interact with other local people who were super interested in learning about it. Our program wrapped up as it started to get pretty dark, and it just seemed like a pretty idyllic summer evening. 

We had a similar educational workshop at the end of the weekend about growing fruit in urban backyards, which we capped off by planting a patch of blackberries, raspberries, elderberry, and serviceberry in the community garden. That fruit patch is looking healthy this spring, and it’s fun to see a reminder of that year’s event that will hopefully last for years.

Snippets of last year’s garden tour

Stephanie's Garden, A Little Bit of Everything
Emily's Garden, Mr. B's Blubes and Blooms
Katarina's Garden, Mia's Fruit Paradise

GP: Are you a member of a community garden? 
Laura: We have a community garden that Leland Scales started about eight years ago, and the garden tour benefits the garden through plant sales, sponsorships, and donations. I’ve helped out sometimes on garden work days – I’d recommend just showing up at any scheduled garden work days! At least for our garden, once you’re familiar with the space and know what you’re doing, you can also just stop by on your own time and do some weeding or harvest what’s ready.

GP: How did you get involved with Grow Pittsburgh? From Grow Pittsburgh’s values, which one resonates with you the most?
Laura:  I’ve been a member of the Garden Resource Center for several years, and I tell other local gardeners about it every chance I get. I usually use my full allotment of compost every month – that much compost would be outrageously expensive otherwise. I do have my own compost, too, but it’s never enough, especially when I’m starting new garden beds. Also, Grow Pittsburgh has been a big supporter of the Swissvale Edible Garden Tour!

The Grow Pittsburgh value of Community Participation resonates with me a lot. Even if I spend most of my gardening time alone in the garden (and wouldn’t want it any other way!!), tapping into the gardening community and the knowledge of other gardeners has been so valuable and has helped me make connections in my neighborhood. It’s easy to imagine a lifetime of gardening when you meet so many other people at different stages of their lives and their own experiences of gardening.

GP: What are some lessons gardening has taught you?
Laura:  I think it’s been a great way to practice patience and resourcefulness. I don’t have a huge gardening budget, so I’ve found it works best to do things gradually and repurpose materials wherever possible. For example, a few years ago I started picking up toilet bowl lids at Construction Junction to build up some parts of the beds – my favorite ones are the old pastel colors like purple and green. They’re basically indestructible and obviously waterproof. No one ever seems to notice them in my garden unless I point them out.

GP: How do you hope to learn and grow your skills as a gardener in the future?
Laura:  I tend to forget about managing my compost pile, so I’m trying to pay more attention to composting efficiently. Compost is vital since my garden is mostly made up of in-ground, no-till-ish beds, and I top them all off every year with a layer of compost. 

Other than that, there are still plenty of things that I haven’t grown yet, including some garden staples – this year is the first year I’m growing potatoes! I also want to make more of my own herbal tea. During the summer, I like making fresh herb tea with things like sage, mint, or lemon balm, but I don’t usually preserve any for the winter.

GP: Any advice for folks who are getting started with growing their own food?
Laura:  I think there’s no substitute for meeting and learning from other gardeners, but, that said, I do seem to spend a lot of time searching for garden things on YouTube and often find it very helpful. 

Do you know another local grower you’d like to see in the Grower’s Spotlight? Maybe it’s you! Drop us a line to be featured in our next newsletter or on our blog.