A SEED EXPERT SPEAKS

There was a time when Renee Shepherd's business was mostly about flowers. But these days she's thinking about rutabaga and celeriac more than zinnias and cosmos.

Shepherd has been in the seed business for more than 25 years and has owned Renee's Garden since 1998, so it's safe to say that she has a good idea about what is going on in gardening and some of the trends surprise even her.

"Root vegetables are a big deal right now," she said. "If you had told me six years ago that I'd be trialing rutabaga and celeriac, I wouldn't have believed you."

Increasing popularity in root vegetables is just one of the trends Shepherd is seeing that continues on a larger shift she first saw about seven years ago.

"I used to sell more flower seeds; it was about half and half between flowers and vegetables," Shepherd said. "But in 2008-2009 it shifted and now I sell more vegetables. It's about 70-30 vegetables now."

Clockwise, from upper left: Tuscan Baby Leaf kale, Little Firebirds nasturtium, The Birds and the Bees sunflower, Litt'l Bites container tomatoes. Renee's Garden photos.

Shepherd said she thinks that the combination of the recession and an increasing interest in growing and making your own food accounts for the change.

"Younger gardeners want to grow stuff and have an interest in cooking," she said. "It's part of the garden to table movement. There is a new generation coming into gardening. It's a new demographic of people who want to grow nutritious food. There are a lot more young men getting into gardening and just a lot more gardeners in general. They need more information because they didn't necessarily grow up in a gardening tradition."

A lot of new gardeners are also limited to a small space, so Shepherd has actively sought out varieties particularly suitable to containers. A zucchini that produces plenty of fruit on a smaller plant (Astia), a cherry tomato that hails from England where it thrives despite their cold and damp summer (Litt'l Bites), a baby leaf kale meant to harvest in a cut-and-come-again style (Tuscan Baby Leaf) and basil with a perky, compact growth habit (Italian Cameo) are all well suited to gardeners with just a few square feet to garden in.

Shepherd believes in going to a plant's roots to find the best varieties; their ancestral roots, that is. So she goes to Italy to find basil (the best of which is Porfumo di Genova, she said) and eastern Europe for root vegetables.


When she finds new varieties, Shepherd puts them to the test in trial gardens at the company's homebase in Felton, California, in the northern part of the state, and in Vermont as well as in the gardens of friends around the country.

Those trial gardens have led to the introduction of several new seed varieties this year including Little Firebirds nasturtium, which drapes perfectly in containers, a sunflower mix called The Birds and the Bees that is great for attracting pollinators, a mix of Shepherd's favorite red zinnias called Moulan Rouge Red, Purple Sun carrot with a purple exterior and bright orange center, a parsnip and even a fava bean.

Clockwise from upper left: Robin Hood fava bean, Moulan Rouge Red zinnias, Astia container zucchini, Circus Circus carrots. Renee's Garden photos

And she even offered a sneak peek at some promising varieties she's likely to offer next year including a green bean perfect for containers, Custard zucchini, which she says is pale pesto green with a lovely custard flavor, a sauce tomato for containers, rutabaga and more sunflowers, "because you can never have too many sunflowers."

She's also been trialing paprika peppers, which she said don't taste great fresh but are delicious when they are dried and ground. "It's about 1,000 times better than what you'd buy in the store," she said.

Shepherd, who has access to the world's best varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers, could grow anything, but she has her must-plant favorites.

"I wouldn't do without fresh herbs—chives, parsley, chervil, dill, cilantro—and fresh salads," she said. "I love Gigante parsley. I use it in every salad I make in big handfuls because it's really sweet."

Astia zucchini, Persian baby cucumbers, Porfumo di Genova basil and oodles of zinnias also top her must-grow list.

Her customers also have their favorites. Cilantro is the No. 1 selling herb at Renee's Garden, Circus Circus carrots top the vegetable list and sunflowers are her customers' most beloved flower.

The artwork on Renee's Garden seed packets is done by an in-house illustrator and based on photos from the company's trial gardens. Renee Shepherd writes all of the information on the back of the packet, which has a handy flap that allows for lots of information in a size and font you can actually read. 

The shift in the popularity of vegetable seeds several years ago might have been a surprise, but Shepherd said she expects the ratio of vegetables to flowers to even out in coming  years.

"I think renewed interest in pollinators will lead people back to flowers," she said. "The more diverse your garden is, the more beneficial insects you'll get."

And most of all, Shepherd thinks more people will continue discovering the joy of gardening.

"Gardening is such a positive thing," she said. "I think it's a skill that all humans relate to and it gives people a real sense of pleasure and pride. There aren't too many things we can do where we make something from start to finish. I think we need more of that in this world."

FRIDAY FINDS: Bees, bulbs and books

Like much of the country we have been in a deep freeze this week. This kind of weather is such a challenge this time of year because by mid-February we fool ourselves into thinking that spring is right around the corner. I'm going to a gardening seminar this weekend so I'll get my dose of spring in that way, I guess. Don't worry, I'll share tidbits that I pick up with all of you!

In any case, it might be cold but it's still Friday, so on with the Friday Finds!

You've probably heard at least a little something about neonicotinoids, pesticides that many studies show contribute to honeybee colony collapse and can hurt many beneficial insects. Genevieve breaks down exactly what these pesticides are, how they work and what gardeners can do about them. She also gives a great list of sources that don't use them if you want to seek that out. Check out her article here.

Are you starving for more garden knowledge? I can't seem to get enough of it. Horticulture Magazine has a wonderful series of webinars on its website that anyone can view on a whole variety of topics. These are recordings of seminars they've offered in the past so there is some question and answer at the end that obviously you won't be able to participate in. There is a great one by Allan Armitage.

Craftsy is offering a free download of its container gardening guide, but only through tomorrow. You will have to register to download it.

Have you ever looked at displays at a flower show and thought about all the timing and extra work that has to go into forcing plants to be timed right for the show? It is sort of mind-boggling to me how much planning that must take. I don't plan on doing it, but here's how it happens.

I'm not sure if it's because my mind is so focused on gardening right now, or if I'm not actively seeking out interior design posts (we've decided for the first time in at least four years to not take on any major home improvement projects this year and I don't want to be tempted), but I have been completely bored by almost every interior design photo I've seen lately. It has all gotten a little formulaic. But I am looking forward to Lauren Leiss' book. I really love her style, which I find to be modern but comfortable and not too new. There's a comforting lived-in feeling to her designs that I love.

What's on your radar for this weekend?


EXPERIMENTS IN HORTICULTURE (WINTER BOREDOM EDITION)

I have a few horticultural experiments going on in my house right now. This is unusual for me because I rarely have the patience for such things, but this time of year calls for finding new things to amuse ones self.

All of the cuttings are currently residing in one pot, but if they root successfully I'll pot them on in their own personal pots. If it all works I should have trees in like 15 years. Ha!

About six weeks ago, maybe a little less, I took cuttings from the new white spruce (Picea glauca 'Hudsonii') we planted last year. So far it's been a lovely little tree and one I wouldn't mind having a few more of. It's the first time I've tried to propagate an evergreen and from what I've read, it will take up to 13 weeks for the cuttings to root, so I've not even tried to check on them yet. The good news is that they appear to still be alive in their little mini greenhouse (i.e. a plastic bag over the pot).

The cuttings live in their own mini greenhouse while they hopefully root.

If it works, I'll be sure to tell you what I did, but I don't want to share a method that is a failure if it doesn't work.

The other experiment going has to do with sweet peas. According to my little seed chart, sweet peas are not scheduled to be sown until March 15 at the earliest in my area, but I want to do everything I can to make sure that they are successful.

There is some debate as to how to start sweet peas. OK, there is a lot of debate involving everything from timing to the type of pots you should start them in to what to do with the seeds before you sow them. The last bit is what my mini experiment focuses on.

Some people say to soak the seeds. Other suggest nicking them. And several of the British gardening television presenters suggest doing absolutely nothing to them other than sticking them in the soil.

Blog reader Casa Mariposa reminded me to soak the seeds overnight and said hers sprouted in just a couple days by doing that. The growing instructions that came with my Owl's Acres Sweet Peas order (yeah, I'm the freak who orders seeds from England the first time I try to grow sweet peas) strongly suggest nicking or soaking, going so far as to say they don't recommend even trying them without doing one or the other.

Since I ordered too many seeds (I'll probably end up giving away whatever I don't use, so stay tuned if you're interested in that sort of thing), I'm starting six of them early. I took three of a Spencer variety (long-stemmed, meant for showing and bouquets) called 'Lake Windemere' and three of grandiflora 'Fire and Ice' and potted them up, one pot per variety (which is how I intend to sow them in March). For each variety, I nicked one seed, soaked another for 22 hours and did nothing to the third seed.
My sweet pea experiment is underway in the basement where the two pots are on a heating mat and cardboard makes sure that all light (not that there's much down there) is blocked.

The two pots are currently on the seed-starting mat (set to about 60 degrees but it's having a hard time getting to that temp for some reason, maybe because the pots are somewhat large) and I'll be keeping an eye on what happens.

Of course I'll report the results to you when I have some, which maybe be in a few weeks because it can take some time for sweet peas to germinate.




BOOK REVIEW: FIND YOUR GARDEN STYLE

I had two thoughts when I first saw Rochelle Greayer's book Cultivating Garden Style: that this book was completely different from every other gardening book I've seen, and that it must have been an incredible task to pull it together.

Maybe it's more helpful to tell you what Cultivating Garden Style is not. It's not a book that will tell you how to grow plants or what your garden should look like or hard and fast rules for garden design. Instead it will help you wade through the multitude of garden styles to identify what will work best for you.

Greayer accomplishes this through literally thousands of photos that are sensibly categorized and creatively displayed in a almost never-ending series of beautifully designed pages. I can't imagine the amount of work that went into just sourcing all of the photographs that appear in this book. The result is a feast for the eyes that serves to guide you in discovering what you might want your garden to look like. 

The book (nearly 300 pages of it) is organized into several garden styles with great names from Cottage au Courant to Sophisticated Taj. These styles are illustrated by excellent photos of actual gardens and often something akin to a mood board for a garden—images that are not necessarily meant as a literal description of what might be found in that garden but ones that depict the mood.

Greayer's writing style is well-edited; concise but not lacking in detail.

Several tips, tricks and projects are also sprinkled about the book. Making driftwood art, how to hang a tree swing and general plant suggestions for a specific style are just a few. In other places, photos of accessories that fit the style prove that Greayer is on the cutting edge of not just approachable garden design, but also interior (flowing to the exterior) design. 

That the book is so lovely to look at should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen Greayer's latest project, the gardening journal Pith & Vigor. P &V is chockablock with beautiful illustrations and interesting photographs designed in a refreshing way and printed on tabloid-size newsprint. It is notable for its design but the first issue had a great collection of articles in it. Greayer clearly has an excellent eye for design and it shows in everything she touches. 

Cultivating Garden Style should be the first stop for any homeowner looking to create a new garden or outdoor area and may spur a longtime gardener into finding the next identity for their garden's evolution or help them bring a sense of cohesion to a design lacking in focus.