Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Seed Line Woman: Scholar-turned-seed-purveyor Renee Shepherd selects rare seeds for flavor, color, durability and, above all, the gardener's success.
The Seed Queen
Renee Shepherd's name is firmly planted in the minds of serious gardeners
By Christina Waters
A pioneer of the rare, the heirloom and the completely practical, Renee Shepherd has been tinkering with seeds and testing them in her mountain gardens for the past two decades. And as the entrepreneur of Renee's Garden—the source of those lovely, illustrated organic seed packs now appearing in almost every garden store in the area—she continues her green mission. But first, some backstory.
After taking her Ph.D. at UCSC and spending time in the environmental studies department, Shepherd left academia to found her groundbreaking Shepherd's Garden Seeds company in 1985. After 11 wildly successful years, during which Shepherd penned many vivid gardening tips and mouth-watering garden recipes, she sold the company. In 1997 she founded a streamlined specialty seed business, Renee's Garden, offering seeds to her passionate patrons through independent garden centers, nurseries and a flourishing Internet trade.
Walking through her sun-drenched acres above Felton, you realize why the only thing that doesn't grow on Shepherd is moss. She's too busy. Writing the copy, articles, recipes and notes for Renee's Garden's monthly newsletter and seed packets. Creating cookbooks. Emailing seed sources all over the world. Riding her beloved trail horses. And did I mention that for the past 18 years she has chaired the Planning Commission for Santa Cruz County?
In the several decades she's been networking with small experimental growers as well as the "large old seed houses of Europe," Shepherd has seen big changes. "It's still a small world and it's still about relationships," she says over herbal tea at her sunny Santa Cruz Mountain home, "but the Internet has changed everything." For example, there is no longer a print catalog. The Internet has also let Shepherd find out what her customers want and respond to their changing tastes.
Dried flowers are out, she tells me. So are chiles (or at least they're not as wildly popular as they once were). Rich deep colors, in flowers and vegetables, are in. "People have less room now for gardening, so I've begun offering varieties especially for containers," she says.
People also have less time for gardening, hence her innovative new packets of what she calls "instant bouquets." Renee's Garden offers zinnia seeds and nasturtium seeds of multiple colors all packaged together. "The seeds are color coded," she adds a pleased-with-herself smile, "so people can know what they're planting."
Shepherd never stops experiment-ing with vegetable sizes, shapes and colors. "I've got container tomatoes now where the plant is small and compact, but the tomatoes grow to full size. And I've got baby butter heads that make single serving salads." I'm getting hungry.
Shepherd is clear about her mission. "I want what's going to be successful for the home gardener." Not all of her hunting and gathering involves organic and rare seeds. "I'm not ideologically straitjacketed," she reminds me. "I sell a lot of heirlooms and good-tasting hybrids, and as much organically produced seed as is available. No GMOs!"
We sift through a pile of seed packets on her kitchen table. Pink nasturtiums, white zinnias, pale lavender larkspur—always something unusual. "Lemon thyme, chives, dill, parsley, chervil," she recites, holding up the incredibly informative seed packets that bear her name. "I actually cook from my own cookbooks," she notes with a slight blush.
Out in her "trial gardens," which are managed by two graduates of Cabrillo's horticulture program, I admire rows of dill. "I look for delicious, slow-bolting, easy-to-grow traits," she says. All of her trail beds are "classic Alan Chadwick raised beds," she points out.
Three arugulas—one from Denmark and two from Italy—are germinating in the greenhouse. "My job is to get the very best seed that produces the best results. After all, my name is on it."
Scent is the important factor in her beds of new violas, blooming in one of her sunny back gardens just below her new irrigation-and-swimming pond. "It was a lifelong dream," she smiles. "And the sweet peas are great—we've got 24 different varieties of sweet peas."
One hillside contains a prickly pear cactus hedge-in-progress, the fruit of which Shepherd particularly likes. Another is packed with roses. "Breeders have brought scent back to roses," she explains. "The new varieties have many virtues—older isn't necessarily better," says a woman whose plate is never empty.
"Being in this business allows me to be involved in the work of some amazing people. That's what I like best about my work. It matters."
Learn more about Renee's Garden seeds at www.reneesgarden.com.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.