Welcome to Grow Pittsburgh’s Partner Profile, a series we started to shine a light on some of the local businesses and organizations who partner with us to help folks throughout Pittsburgh learn how to grow their own food and enjoy the many benefits of gardening.
For this Partner Profile, we are highlighting Soil Sisters Plant Nursery. Soil Sisters is a Pittsburgh plant nursery and houseplant store owned by Grow Pittsburgh staff member Raynise Kelly and her sister TaRay Kelly. They are working to provide accessible food to their community and provide quality plants to the city. Keep reading to learn all about Soil Sisters and what inspires them!
Grow Pittsburgh: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background growing plants?
Raynise: Aside from being a Grow Pittsburgh staff, Bidwell is where my growing start happened. I went through the horticulture program and that’s where I got connected with all the other organizations and businesses that are agriculture and horticulture related.
TaRay: So me, as a younger sister to Raynise, got my start similar to her. To go back, our grandparents are both from down south, and we grew up with gardens in our backyard so it was naturally in us when we were younger. In our adulthood when she went to bidwell, I worked for the University of Pittsburgh, and I have worked there for thirteen years in multiple positions. When Raynise went to Bidwell, I moved to the grounds department which does all of the landscaping for the university, so I got the on the job training of landscaping while keeping the university beautiful.
GP: Tell us about Soil Sisters. How did you get started?
Raynise: It started with me having an interest in growing food and less on a personal scale. A Bidwell commercial came on and I had time to take their horticulture class. So through that I started taking some of the practices I learned home and was practicing growing some things. It really let me down a path of food justice and realizing that it can be a real struggle to access fresh food. It went from us trying to grow fresh food for ourselves to figuring out how to do that on a grander scale for our community.
TaRay: After seeing Raynise at Grow Pittsburgh, we saw there are a lot of garden spaces and a lot of community gardens, but how can we support them? At first we thought we would get a community garden to support, but over time it turned into “how can we support community gardens?”. So from that perspective, Raynise said let’s become a seedling production company because there aren’t many people focusing on organic and heirloom quality, especially going into the fall. People aren’t aware they can grow in the fall – after your tomatoes are done you can follow with lettuce, collards, and kale. So we try to promote that season to people as well.
GP: What is your mission?
Raynise: Our mission has been evolving. It originally started and is still centered around food access to predominantly low income black communities but now it is evolving into more of all things green. We are collaborating with organizations and businesses that can help push access to green spaces like taking over vacant lots and making them more green however the community asks for. We are still narrowing down a mission but it is really driven by food access, community, residence, and anything green.
TaRay: For me, it’s supporting people whether it’s nutritionally or mentally. Gardening and having green space is therapeutic so we are behind people knowing the mental component and the nutritional value.
GP: Tell us about the kind of plants you grow here
Raynise: The houseplants we don’t grow. We source them wholesale and we specifically look for things that we don’t see in a lot of the other stores.
Our seed selection that we grow here is based on our climate then heirloom and organic varieties that people can regrow themselves. I try to be complementary to the things that Grow Pittsburgh grows that people can have a variety to choose from. For instance we are both growing tomatoes but there are quite a few varieties that she grows and I don’t and vice versa. We try to give people a nice variation of the traditional crops they are used to like kale, collards, peppers, tomatoes but selecting varieties that are a little different but will surely grow in our climate. And that’s the difference between going somewhere like Home Depot or Lowes.
TaRay: Even the hybrid varieties that we may have were selected because they are beneficial to our climate. Sometimes heirloom varieties aren’t best for here and are susceptible to pests so we are always intentional for what will give you the best yield for zone 6b.
GP: How did your partnership with Grow Pittsburgh start?
Raynise: Bidwell had a really good handle on connecting their students with organizations and businesses related to agriculture. I eventually connected with Grow Pittsburgh and became a staff member. Jake, the executive director at the time, was very supportive of everybody’s outside of work passions. I was interested in starting my own business and felt comfortable bringing that to the table and Jake told me to go for it.
TaRay: While Raynise was working in school gardens I loved it and started volunteering on kickoff days. I found solace volunteering at Grow Pittsburgh and that eventually turned into me becoming a board member for three years. Jake was always a great support for us.
GP: What’s something exciting you have lined up for 2023?
Raynise: I think the most exciting thing about the rest of this year now that we have the store set up is connecting with the other businesses in Allentown. So trying to have events where we all collaborate. The Allentown night market is really popular, and we want to expand on that.
TaRay: I think more people finding out about the storefront. We haven’t even been open for a year. We opened to the public last July and it’s the beginning of the season so I am excited for people to find us. Also more pop-ups, more events, and bringing more quality food to the city.
GP: Any last thoughts?
Raynise: Seedlings are now available so come by the store and check us out!
Taray: Tomatoes and peppers are here! We also have fresh bouquets you can buy as well from Fonta Flora Flowers. We have candles, tinctures, coffee, artwork and more from many women owned businesses. There is a little bit of something for everybody!
Check out Soil Sisters Plant Nursery!