Meet the Julia Child of Seeds

It’s a mark of the coldest days: the oversized, graphically-crammed pages of seed catalogs spilling out of my mailbox. I keep them for a special moment when, with a candle and a cup of tea, I pore over the pages, fast forwarding to April in my mind. To me is the epitome of hygge.

But not all seed sellers are created equal, and some of the most deeply satisfying catalogs have, in my experience, fallen short when growing time comes around. In fact, my favorite seed source doesn’t even print a catalog.

It’s a small operation out of California, called Renee’s Garden, that sources seeds from around the world. I started using Renee’s Garden seeds when I first started gardening in 2007. In the intervening time, I’ve tried many brands of seeds, but keep coming back to Renee’s Garden — always the most successful and delicious. Started by Renee Shepherd in 1998, the company sells online and in retailers across the U.S. and Canada. What first attracted me to these seeds in the garden supply store in 2007 was the personal, warm feeling they exude  — whether that’s from the hand-painted illustrations on the seed packets, or the friendly tone of the written instructions on the back — using these seeds feels like gardening with your most knowledgeable friend.

That’s why I was so excited when Renee Shepherd made time to speak with me last week.

During our conversation, Shepherd spoke about the extensive testing of plants that happens in her trial gardens, which test about 300 varieties of seed each year.

Dedicated to making growing from seed accessible, successful, and fun for home gardeners, it occurred to me that Renee Shepherd is kind of like the Julia Child of seeds.

She first began gardening as an adult, and has since devoted her life to finding the best seeds, to demystifying the growing process, and connecting as many people as possible to this nourishing and rewarding practice. (That Shepherd has also written three cookbooks only strengthens the connection!)

RURALIE: Tell me about your first garden.

SHEPHERD: My grandmother gardened. She had a big food garden, and I used to visit her every Saturday when my mom went shopping. My grandmother would always take me out on the garden, and we’d harvest stuff, and then she’d fix me lunch with it. I always loved that experience of picking things with her.

I didn’t actually grow anything until I was in graduate school. I went to finish my Ph.D. at U.C. Santa Cruz, right when everything with organic gardening was happening.

RURALIE: Can you talk about the intersection of gardening and seeds, and food?

SHEPHERD: In my own life, once I started gardening, I needed to start cooking. As any gardener knows, you plant a row of beans and all of a sudden you’re inundated with beans...many more beans than you have for your three easy recipes to cook beans with.

When I started the seed business and I introduced people to things like radicchio, they needed to know what to do with the radicchio. Cooking grows out of gardening.

This is a time when people are really interested in nutrition, food safety, in knowing where their food is coming from, creating backyard habitats, wanting to eat really good food, wanting to try different cuisines: all that comes together in the backyard garden.

RURALIE: What do you think about the modern homesteading movement?

SHEPHERD: I’m old enough that it’s the second time around. I think it’s terrific. The difference this time is that there are a lot of people trying to live very sustainable lives in urban settings. In my seed business, we’ve seen a whole lot of interest from people who want to grow in containers, backyards, rooftops, community gardens. They see the garden as a way to slow down and connect with the earth again.

RURALIE: Why is it important try growing food from seed?

SHEPHERD: Growing from seed is a way of experiencing everyday miracles. It’s still terrifically exciting to me, someone who’s been doing it for many years, to plant a little hard round thing and eight days later, little plants come above the surface. It’s thrilling and amazing seeing nature’s cycle and understanding it...and just the very fact that it happens. You actually create something in partnership with nature.

It’s a skill that connects us with generations of humans. It connects you with other people in other times.

You can very romantic about gardening, but it’s satisfying, a lot of fun, and productive.

Growing from seed is a way of experiencing everyday miracles.
— Renee Shepherd

RURALIE: What has been the meaning of seeds in your life?

SHEPHERD: It is what my life has been devoted to. I’m trying to encourage more people to garden from seed; finding those seeds; writing the packets; trialling all the varieties. For me it’s been my whole life.

Growing from seed has connected me to many people and groups who are making real positive change in the world. Whether it’s starting gardens in food deserts, helping people in flood or fire torn zones, or giving people with disabilities the opportunities to make something exceptional happen for themselves. We’ve worked with prison gardens, where prisoners get a real skill they can carry to the outside world. It’s so positive to be involved with seeds...Just the word “growing” is a symbol for change and rebirth, which is what the cycle of growing seeds teaches you.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

For a lot of folks, growing from seed is something that can feel intimidating and sometimes frustrating. It’s discouraging when, after tending little seedlings on a window sill for weeks, they don’t turn out. Which is precisely why buying seed that’s been tried and true is so important. With all of your seed buying, be sure to look beyond the pretty catalog/website, and learn about the seed seller. (The website Dave’s Garden collects reviews of mail order plant and seed retailers, and is a good resource.)

If you’ve never tried growing from seed before, I hope you try it this year. Shepherd suggests salad greens for first-timers: they’re quick, easy, and satisfying.

My personal favorite plants to grow from seed are nasturtiums -- they do well nearly everywhere, have the added bonus of being floral and edible, and to me they are the happiest looking plants.