This Grower’s Spotlight features Katy DeMent, a lifelong gardener and founding member of Swissvale Edible Garden Tour. Katy is also a papermaker who uses plants to create her paper. Hear from Katy about her process of making paper out of plants, why she created the Swissvale Edible Garden Tour, and what gardening means to her.
Grow Pittsburgh: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started growing food?
Katy: I’m a lifelong gardener! I grew up in North Carolina where my grandmothers, great aunts, and mother all were sustenance gardeners. I grew up digging up worms and pruning tomatoes, getting hundreds of years of garden wisdom from the matriarchs of my family.
Moving to Pittsburgh and starting a garden here, well that was a challenge. Seasons and soil conditions were very different than the south. I thought that the rocky soil in my backyard would be really rich, but it turned out to be mainly industrial waste. So I found a community garden and learned pretty quickly about soil testing and amendments. Everybody in the community would laugh at me when I was out there planting in March, but I threw blankets over the plants and was the only one getting fresh tomatoes early!
GP: What do you grow here?
Katy: My garden has taken over my yard,I call it the “YARDEN”, no longer just a small vegetable garden. I grow year-round and have a lot of perennials, things like rhubarb, blueberries, asparagus, and herbs. I have my seasonal garden beds in a theoretically (deer resistant) enclosed area, and grow annual vegetables there. I also experiment in my yard, looking for interesting fibers that I can use in my papermaking.
GP: Can you tell us more about your paper making?
Katy: In 1984 I saw a Chinese art exhibition in Atlanta that featured an incredible traditional papermaker. At the time I had been sewing costumes for a living and using my scraps to create collages. I had been really frustrated with how the glue worked in my art projects, so when the artist let me stick my hands in the gooey slimy part it seemed like a great way to connect all of my fibrous materials without plastic adhesives!
35 years later and I’m still using many of the same processes that I learned back then! I’m mainly self-taught, but in the past 10 years I’ve taken several paper processing classes to learn different techniques.
GP: How does your paper making process work?
Katy: You start by beating your plant of choice into a fine pulp. Any plant can be made into paper, but some work better than others. With some plants you can use the whole thing, but with others you can only use specific parts. You’re looking for good long fibers, okra is my favorite plant to use.
After you pick your plant and pound it to a fine pulp then you add water you blend it in a high-powered blender,and use wire screens to pan it out, similar to gold panning. The fibers will collect on the screen and start to form a sheet. Once you have the initial sheet, you do a complicated little flip to get it out of the screen and then clamp all of your wet paper sheets together very tightly. It can be done in one (very long) day, but the drying takes much longer.
Once you know how to make a sheet of paper you can really get creative, adding texture or color, drawing on the wet paper, changing the size, or using molds.
GP: Do you offer paper making classes or sell your products around here?
Katy: I do! I offer pop-up classes around the city (read below to learn about the October class with Grow Pittsburgh in October) and sell my seeded paper locally at Contemporary Craft and Love Pittsburgh. I also sell my articulated sculptures and paper books out of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.
GP: Can you tell us about your involvement with the Swissvale Edible Garden Tour?
Katy: Sure! A few years ago I was sitting around a fire one night with some local gardeners, and we realized that the neighborhood could use a garden tour focused on edible food and sustainability. There were plenty of tours about decorative gardening, but we wanted to start one where you could tour local backyards and eat a bit of fresh food at each. The tour is held every July and now has about 20 different gardens around Swissvale. We like to wrap up the day with a big potluck feast that celebrates local food and gardens.
GP: What does gardening, and growing food, mean to you?
Katy: Sustainability and health. I love walking into the garden and picking whatever is ripe to eat for dinner. It’s great to know where your food comes from, there’s nothing better than eating fresh out of the garden.
My soil health is also getting better and better. Each year my garden is stronger and there’s less weeds because of the compost and mulch. That’s largely thanks to the Garden Resource Center (GRC)! I had lost so many of my tools between moves, so joining the GRC was one of the first things that I did when I moved here. It’s an amazing resource and every city should have one. I always have to allow a little extra time when I goto engage with other gardeners and gain some wisdom.I get a little too ambitious about starting seeds every spring and love sharing my seedlings with other gardeners there… the GRC is probably the most valuable garden related membership you can have!
Growing food is a way of life. I do a lot of canning, freezing, dehydrating… I’ve worn out two dehydrators in the last six years because I dry so much food! Things from my garden and public food that I forage, like serviceberries, apples, and pears from street trees. I’m a strong believer in growing food (and using food from) public spaces.
GP: What are some lessons that growing food has taught you?
Katy: Dirt is delicious! Try growing stuff you’ve never grown before, and try planting outside of your garden beds! Mixing prickly squash with your flowers can confuse the deer and groundhogs and keep them out, plus attract helpful insects!
Your back is fragile! Remember that you can hurt yourself in the garden, make deep knee bends part of your daily routine. Move slowly and practice your fancy tai chi yoga moves.
GP: Do you have any advice for new gardeners?
Katy: Join the GRC! Take the time to talk with the other gardeners, at the GRC, at community gardens, even in their own yards. Other gardeners are the best resource you can have. Especially older gardeners, because quite often they’ll have seeds or something in their pocket that they want to share with you! And talk with your neighbors, especially the ones planting grass! Gardens do so much for our environment and can be such a powerful way to connect communities.
You can read more about Katy’s paper making at her website, www.thepaperlady.com. You can join Katy (and Albert Pantone, another local paper maker) at their October 21st workshop at Grow Pittsburgh’s Braddock Farms. Read more about the workshop at https://www.growpittsburgh.org/event/making-handmade-paper-from-garden-waste-invasive-japanese-knotweed/.
Former Miss Pennsylvania and Ms Thang, model dresses made from paper
The world’s largest paper quilt, a record-breaking project by Amy Masters, Albert Pantone, and Katy DeMent.