Renee Shepherd owns a seed company geared to (and cherished by) home gardeners. When I was in Northern California recently, I asked if I could come by for a chat. She told me to come to her home, a sage green ranch house on four sloping acres in the hills above Santa Cruz. The property is about a mile from her office. "Come for lunch," she said.
This surprised me a little because a part of me imagined that at the height of the winter seed-buying season, Shepherd would be otherwise engaged in the frenzy of getting a packet of radish Pink Beauty to Tammy in Topeka and a packet of radish Pink Punch to Bob in Baltimore.
Renee's Garden sells thousands of varieties of vegetable, herb and flower seeds from its Web-only catalog, as well as from racks in 1,600 retailers in the United States. But orders are handled by folks in a warehouse in Boulder, Colo. Shepherd is the creative force behind the enterprise, a role that allows us to sit at her dining table sampling a salad of greens from her garden while her pet cockatiel, L'Oiseau, looks on with stunning indifference.
The seed business is a $3 billion-a-year, global industry. Only a fraction of that is designed for the needs and desires of the home gardener. Each year in this country, almost 100 million acres are planted in field corn and another 78 million acres in soybean. I reserve about 20 square feet for carrots. To the big seed companies supplying commercial varieties by the ton to farmers, my little garden barely registers.
This is where niche seed merchants such as Shepherd come in, people who understand that to a gardener, a row of beets is not a field crop but a source of pride and anticipation. So I don't want a common red beet; I want a juicy golden beet, or a striped Italian variety. I want a beet that will love me back.
To put together her catalog, Shepherd deals with 60 or more specialty seed producers in the United States and around the world. Over the years, as the seed business became more specialized, she had to find more producers -- farmers who cultivate a crop for its seed. "We buy seed from a lot more producers, and I work hard to find new ones," she said. "I'm looking at peppers from the Czech Republic and Hungary because they have so much more material." She said she finds more interesting varieties of flower annuals in Europe as well. "I'm interested in the color and forms. I find more for my home gardening niche in Europe."
To an unusual degree, she designs her own seed mixes, and this has produced some enduring favorites. The obvious examples are her salad green mixes. My favorite is Paris Market Mix, which blends seven lettuces, escaroles, arugula and more. The taste is there, of course, but as important, it's a medley that just looks good in the garden, especially at a young stage.
She has two trial gardens at home, where she tests offerings from her growers. If she likes prospective varieties, she will get others to evaluate them in other regions and climates.
February is pretty dead in the garden, even in California, but in the upper bed she was trying out some baby leaf kale and an Asian spinach with large, smooth, pointed leaves. Named Oriental Giant, it has a lot of leaf substance that bestows cold tolerance for fall and winter cultivation. In the lower garden, she walked me through rows of a Dutch variety of Brussels sprouts she hopes to introduce next year. It keeps a firm, tight bud, she said, offering one to her golden Lab, Eliot. He decided he liked it.
The food movement is driving much of her work. Veggies once considered undesirable are now in vogue, in part because gardeners know that a homegrown turnip, for example, is not the same beast as the turnip you find at a supermarket, and partly because we are getting more flavorful and nutritious varieties. "If you told me five years ago I would be trialing rutabagas, I would have said you were nuts. But now there is such an interest in root vegetables."
Novelty drives interest. This season, she is introducing a particularly curled variety of kale, Dutch Darkibor. The world needs more kale variety -- as much as I love Red Russian and Black Tuscan, it would be nice to try something else. Her new varieties also include a gourmet collard green (Green Flash), a yellow French bush bean (Roc d'Or) and a variety of scented dianthus with heavily fringed petals, in a mix of colors. Shepherd said she doesn't expect Lace Perfume to sell particularly well -- as a perennial it will take two years to put on a meaningful show -- but she considered it special enough to offer.
I credit Renee Shepherd with making my vegetable garden floriferous. She has developed mixes of Shirley and California poppies, sweet peas and zinnias that I return to each year.
In an age of decline for honeybees and other pollinators, the flowers lure bees and butterflies into the garden in a compact with the gardener: Here's some nectar, please pollinate something.
And yet flower sales have declined. Almost half of her business used to be in annual seeds. "Now it's probably 30 percent flowers and the rest vegetables and herbs." She thinks that as vegetable gardening took off just in time for the Great Recession, food gardeners lost interest in flowers or considered them a luxury during hard times. For years, I might add, gardeners lost interest in seed-starting in general, knowing they could pick up flats of annuals already grown for them at the garden center. But growing things such as sunflowers, zinnias and tithonias from seed is cheap and easy.
Shepherd can now use the pollinator angle to pitch them, but she agrees there's an even better reason. "It's part of the joy of gardening," she said.