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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.

Why Don’t Tulips Return Each Year?

By Paul James

Unlike daffodils, crocuses, alliums, and other popular spring-flowering bulbs commonly grown around here that dependably rebloom year after year — often for decades — tulips rarely do so. And yet, technically tulips are perennials. So what gives? Well, what gives is where we live.

Tulips are native to the foothills of the Himalayas, and the steppes of eastern Turkey, Armenia, and northern Iran, areas where winters are extremely cold and summers are extremely hot and dry, much more so than our own. It’s as simple as that. The culprit is our climate.

So how then do tulips thrive in Holland, where the climate is akin to ours? They get the “Dutch Touch.” Bulbs are subjected to an ingenious (and crazy expensive) series of heat and humidity treatments prior to planting that fools them into thinking they’ve been through a summer drought in Nepal. They then undergo the cold Dutch winter in the ground. The technique allows growers to perfectly replicate the tulip’s native habitat.

You may have heard that Darwin hybrid tulips will come back, but in all my years of gardening, I’ve only had that happen once. It was following the intense heat and drought of 2010, and although they did rebloom, the plants lacked the vigor and beauty they displayed the first year.

Given their beauty, it’s too bad tulips don’t behave as true perennials here. But given their beauty, it’s worth planting them every year. Wouldn’t you agree?

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

Is it Autumn or Fall?

By Paul James

Spring is spring. Summer is summer. And winter is winter. No confusion. No problem. So why in the world is the current season — which officially began on September 22 at precisely 8:31 a.m. — known by two completely different yet interchangeable words? Well, as a gardener who knows that now, whatever you call it, is the ideal time to plant darn near everything, I decided to dig into the matter. Here’s what I found.

Yes, the two words mean the same thing, but autumn is much older. It first appeared in the English language in the 1300s (borrowed from the French automne and before that the Latin autumnus) and it caught on quickly. Prior to its introduction, the season was known simply as “harvest” because that’s when so many crops were harvested, especially fruits and grains.

English poets wrote extensively of all the changes that took place during autumn, in particular the “fall of the leaves.” And by the 1600s, “fall” became a slightly abbreviated, but perfectly acceptable alternative to autumn, although it didn’t appear in English dictionaries until 1755. Even today, throughout the UK, Australia, and wherever British English is spoken, autumn is by far the more popular term.

Of course on this side of the pond, fall is used almost exclusively, although I must admit that autumn is a prettier word. And it has only one distinct meaning, whereas fall can be used as either a noun or a verb and has well over a dozen meanings. But regardless of what you call it, it is to me the most beautiful season of all.

Happy autumn, all. And happy fall, ya’ll.

War of the Roses

By Paul James

The War of the Roses was fought for 32 years in fifteenth-century England between rival York and Lancaster factions. York chose as its symbol the white rose, while Lancaster opted for the red. So why the brief history lesson? Well, because if you choose to grow roses — and I hope you do — it’s only fair to say that you may have to do battle with a few pests and diseases. But no worries. Here’s how to win the war.

Make sure you plant your roses in the right spot, which in a perfect world means a good six hours of sun a day and fairly rich, well-drained soil. If your soil is less than ideal, add compost or a bag of Back to Earth Rose Bed Amendment at planting time.

Don’t crowd your roses. Good air circulation between plants will go a long way toward minimizing fungal diseases (more on those nasty pathogens in a moment). Ideally, you should allow roughly three feet of space between the tips of the leaves of each plant.

Try to water only the base of the plant and not the leaves. Again, that’s to avoid fungal issues.

And finally, mulch. Roses prefer even moisture rather than erratic moisture swings. So do I, actually, but I tend toward the erratic.

Okay, now it’s time to address — or rather attack — pests and diseases.

Around here, the most common pests are spider mites, rose bud borers, rose chafers, and last but not least, the dreaded Japanese beetle. Your arsenal of organic weapons range from Neem to Spinosad to Pyrethrum, and among synthetics there are contact poisons such as Bonide Eight or systemics such as Rose Shield or Bayer All in One Rose Granules. 

For control of common fungal disease — black spot, rust, powdery mildew, and more — Rose Shield works well, as do old standby formulations containing copper or sulfur, as well as the newer bacterial controls such as Serenade and Revitalize. 

I feel as though I should discuss Rose Rosette Disease while I’m on the subject of roses, but I suggest you go to this excellent article on the OSU website for details on the subject. (Spoiler alert — there is no cure.) https://extension.okstate.edu/fact-sheets/rose-rosette-disease.html 

And by the way, in case you’re wondering who won the War of the Roses, it was the Red Rose Team. Henry Tudor, (Henry VII), earl of Richmond and a Lancastrian, defeated King Richard III, a Yorkist, at the battle of Bosworth Field on August 22nd, 1485. Richard III was the last English monarch to have been killed in battle. Ironically, some five centuries later the white rose would become a symbol of peace.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

Things to Do in the Garden

Wondering what to do in the garden right now, especially those of you who are stuck at home? Well wonder no more, because we’ve prepared a long but by no means complete list of all the tasks you can tackle now. And we’ve provided links to our Shop Site so you can just click and shop for what you need. Here goes.

What to Plant

Fescue and ryegrass seed at least through the end of the month.

Deciduous trees and shrubs of all kinds.

Conifers — Arborvitae, cedar, cypress, false cypress, pine, juniper, spruce, and yew.

Broadleaf evergreens — Abelia, azalea, boxwood, Distyllium, Gardenia, holly, Nandina, and Photinia.

Perennials — All of them.

Annuals — All of them, but realize they need protection if temps drop below 45 degrees.

Herbs — All of them, but be prepared to protect basil, cilantro, dill, and lemongrass if temps drop below 45 degrees.

Vegetables — Think twice before planting warm-season crops such as beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, peppers, squash, and tomatoes. Forecasts are calling for temps in the 30s next week, and that would destroy or severely damage those crops. Transplants will be fine on a sunny windowsill for another week, but if you’ve already planted, cover your plants with blankets and hope for the best.

Containers — You can grow practically anything and everything in containers, from trees and shrubs to annuals and perennials to vegetables and herbs. And if cold temperatures threaten, you can move them into the house or garage.

What to Fertilize

Pretty much everything, since all plants — including houseplants — are entering their active growth phase. Turf grasses too. But wait until azaleas finish blooming to fertilize.

What to Prune

Conifers and broadleaf evergreens (see list above) — Generally, these plants don’t need much pruning, and if you get carried away you can do more harm than good. Just give them a light haircut if necessary.  Arborvitae, hollies, and junipers can be sheared to control their shape. In the case of pines, pinch or snap the candles (the new growth at the tips of branches) in half to create a bushier plant or leave them alone if you want the branches to grow longer.

Spring-flowering trees and shrubs — Once the flowers have faded, you can go ahead and prune. This includes azaleas, crabapple, dogwood, forsythia, quince, redbud, and saucer magnolia.

But Wait…There’s More!

Mulch — Get those beds mulched. A two- to four-inch layer is ideal, but don’t tuck the mulch all the up to the base of plants. That can lead to rot.

Make more plants — This is a fine time to dig and divide a number of perennials, especially hostas and ornamental grasses.

Monitor for pests and diseases — Keep an eye out for insect invasion (especially aphids, thrips, and red spider mites) and fungal diseases. Spray before things get out of control.

Containers — If you haven’t replaced the potting mx in your containers for a couple of years, consider doing so now. At the very least, you should remove one-third of the mix and add fresh stuff.

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