As founder of Shepherd Garden Seeds and Renee's Garden, Renee never dreamed of starting a seed company, never even envisioned herself with her own business. It all started -- serendipitously -- with a game of soccer. She liked to play, and had a backyard big enough for both a large garden and a friendly game. One day she and some friends were kicking the ball around when one of them - who worked for a Dutch seed grower - mentioned that he had some European varieties of vegetables - fancy lettuces, in particular -- that weren't available in the States. Upon seeing her garden, he thought she might be interested. Renee grew them and was hooked.
"I thought, 'This is great stuff,' and I believed these were varieties that other gardeners would like," says Renee. It was 1985, and she was in the right place for embarking on a horticultural venture. The University of California at Santa Cruz, where she was teaching environmental studies, was ground zero of biointensive or French intensive, organic gardening, founded by horticulture visionary Alan Chadwick. Chadwick taught organic gardening methods at Santa Cruz by immersing students in the garden, where they learned his techniques of double-digging and amending the soil with organic materials. His influence fueled an explosion of small-scale horticulture, and although Renee did not study with him, she was a beneficiary of the excitement surrounding Chadwick's approach. She hung out at the U.C. garden - all hands were welcome - and learned gardening methods that added new expertise to her passion for growing plants.
Renee's gardening experience began in her grandmother's huge vegetable garden in an Eastern European community in Cleveland, Ohio, where she grew up. In her first garden in the hills above Santa Cruz, Renee grew kohlrabi that harked back to her grandmother's garden, but she also had a taste for the new and unusual. The European varieties from her friend spurred her to search out varieties that no one was offering in the U.S., and she soon had seeds from France, England, Italy, Germany, Mexico, and Japan and was in the mail order business as Shepherd's Garden Seeds.
Renee's backyard garden turned into a half-acre kitchen garden, where she still trials all the varieties she sells. "There's no substitute for knowing exactly how to grow a plant," she says, "and how to use it." From the beginning, Renee chose flowers that performed well as cut flowers and vegetables that performed well in the kitchen. She did all the packaging and began using the seed packets as mini-catalogs, including as much growing information as possible to help gardeners get from seed to harvest.
"Seed catalogs back then described everything as superlative," says Renee, "so my original intention was to use the packet to talk to other gardeners and describe the plant and how to grow it." Photos can offer false promises as well, so from the beginning she decided to use illustrations instead. She began working with Mimi Osborne, a botanical illustrator, who has designed every seed packet since.
Renee sold Shepherd's Garden Seeds after two years but continued to run the company for another eight years. "I left because the company was getting too big," says Renee. "But I loved the seed business and I kept thinking, 'Why is it that the really interesting varieties are only available through mail order?'" Renee wanted gardeners to have easier access to unusual varieties, so in 1997 she started a second company, Renee's Garden, a line of seeds sold through garden centers, and now on the internet.
Colorful mixtures are one of Renee's Garden's specialties; even her vegetable combos prove that flowers have nothing on vegetables when it comes to contributing a rainbow of color to a garden. Renee creates blends by combining new introductions from countries around the world, and from watching which varieties are the favorites at local farmers' markets. Her eighteen rainbow mixes not only contain several different-colored varieties of carrots, for example, but the seeds of each variety are stained with Easter egg dye so a gardener can identify and plant several plants of each variety.
Renee is especially devoted to sweet peas - the more ruffles and old fashioned fragrance, the better - and she's working with a New Zealand breeder to continually improve upon the twenty choices she already offers. In her testing, she's found that nicking the pea seeds improves the germination (the corner of a nail clipper will do the job), so now she's trying to figure out how to get that information to her customers. "I'm probably going to ditch the 100,000 packets already printed and rewrite them," she says.
While Renee is clearly happiest in the garden, the kitchen beckons her as well. "I got into the creation of recipes when I had the mail order catalog," she says. "I felt an obligation to tell people how to use the foods that I was asking them to grow. Early on I met my cooking partner, Fran Raboff, who wandered in looking for radicchio seeds." Recipes from a Kitchen Garden and More Recipes from a Kitchen Garden were borne of their collaboration. A third in the series is due out next year.
Visit Renee's Garden Web site at: www.reneesgarden.com/
Article published on September 9, 2004.