An Interview with Renee Shepherd
By Paul James
I first met Renee Shepherd, founder of Renee’s Garden Seeds, in 1996. It was at a Home & Garden show in Seattle, and I literally stalked her, waiting for a chance to introduce myself. I’d started Gardening by the Yard the year before, and she had no idea who I was. But I’d been buying her seeds for a decade, and I considered her a true rock star in the world of gardening. So when she walked out of the convention center into a courtyard for some fresh air, I seized the moment.
I don’t recall our conversation, and for all I know I may have creeped her out a bit, but for me it was a truly memorable moment. Fast forward to 2007, when I asked my show producers to try and arrange a visit to Renee’s trial gardens and home in Felton, CA. Thankfully, she agreed, and on the day of the shoot we spent several hours together touring her property and talking about gardening and cooking. It too was a memorable moment. I wanted to catch up with Renee, so I asked her for an interview. And thankfully, once again, she agreed.
Paul James: So, how’s business? And have you seen an uptick in sales since the coronavirus began?
Renee Shepherd: Yes. More than a yes. We’ve seen an unprecedented increase in sales, predominantly among vegetables. The big question is will we be able to maintain the increases. Part of that was due to the fact that transplants sold out so quickly this year, so seeds were the only option. It does seem as though a new crop of gardeners has emerged, and I think the 30-something crowd shows the most potential.
PJ: You source your seeds from all over the world. How in the world do you do that?
RS: The seed business is very international, because seeds are grown all over the world. There are dealers and brokers in the industry, but for the most part we deal directly with actual growers. We seek out those with the skill and expertise to produce seeds of the highest quality.
PJ: And you conduct extensive trials before releasing new introductions, right?
RS: We select our seeds by growing them ourselves at our trial gardens here in California and also in Vermont, and every year we trial over 300 varieties. We make our selections based on factors such as high germination rates, productivity, ease of growing, and how well they perform in the trials. In the case of vegetables and herbs, of course, one of the most important considerations is great flavor, and we use them in my kitchen to choose the most delicious varieties. And in the case of flowers, we focus on those that produce the best cut flowers for bouquets in terms of colors, forms, and fragrances.
PJ: I assume not everything makes the cut.
RS: No, not at all. We may trial six or eight different types of arugula to determine which one or ones not only taste best but perform well and are slow to bolt, for instance.
PJ: When I visited you, I was blown away by the fact that you basically run the company out of your home, and your trial gardens are actually on the property. Does that make it hard to balance your personal and professional lives?
RS: Well, I love what I do, so I don’t make the distinction between them. And I live in a beautiful landscape, and I’m fortunate to have a tremendous staff that helps me take care of things.
PJ: I still remember the delicious salad you made for me and the crew. Do you still spend a lot of time in the kitchen?
RS: Last night I was up well past midnight cooking a batch of purple tomatillo sauce! So yes, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, because that’s part of the trial process. And we develop recipes for what we harvest and publish them online and in our cookbooks.
PJ: Even if I didn’t know you, I’d be compelled to buy your seeds because Mimi Osborne’s artwork is so beautiful.
RS: Mimi is a fabulous artist and an avid gardener. We take photos in the garden, send them to Mimi, and she paints their portraits.
PJ: I’ve always loved the way you provide so much essential information on your seed packets, and not just on the outside of the packet, but inside as well. Do you write most of the content?
RS: Our trial garden manager, Lindsay Del Carlo, and I write all the content, including complete planting instructions, growing tips, harvesting information, and cooking ideas. And because of space constraints, we have to write all that in 237 words.
PJ: I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times, and I’ve always despised questions regarding trends in gardening. So, Renee, what gardening trends have you noticed lately?
RS: Ha! I know what you mean. Whether you can truly call them trends, I’m not sure, but we’ve definitely seen more interest in the past few years in container gardening, gardening for nutrition, and gardening for a healthy habitat, especially when it comes to protecting pollinators. Interest in cut flowers has also been increasing. What I’ve noticed in particular is a greater interest in what I call “lifestyle gardening,” that is the way in which the garden integrates with how you live and the things you enjoy, whether that’s working with your hands or cooking or canning, for instance. Since the pandemic, canning has become hugely popular, to the point where there’s a shortage of canning equipment..
PJ: Speaking of container gardening, I love the way you’ve focused on vegetable varieties in particular that do well in containers. I think too many garden communicators assume that everyone has room for a conventional garden, but in fact millions of people only have a small courtyard, balcony, terrace or maybe just a stoop, yet they too can grow all sorts of goodies.
RS: I agree with you. Growing in containers opens up gardening to a huge population. And containers are more widely available and less expensive than they once were..
PJ: I almost hate to ask, but have the fires disrupted your business?
RS: About 920 homes burned near here, in the coastal mountains, but we were spared thanks to a big back burn. We were evacuated for 10 days, but at the moment we’re okay. Firefighters have done an amazing job. They’re our heroes.
PJ: I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to chat. You’ve been a huge inspiration to me for decades, and I always feel a special kinship with you each time I sow your seeds. I hope our paths cross again soon. Be safe.
RS: Thank you, Paul. You’re welcome here anytime.
To see our selections of Renee’s Garden Seeds, go to https://southwoodgardencenter.com/product-category/seeds/organic-seeds/
Photos courtesy of reneesgarden.com.
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