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 noticed 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.


CONFESS YOUR PLANT-SHOPPING SINS NOW FOR SPRING ABSOLUTION

Yesterday Matt Mattus outlined his theory that there is a dahlia shortage on his blog Growing with Plants. (Sidenote: There are a very small number of gardening blogs that I consider to be the cream of the crop, and Matt's is one. Check it out if you're looking for serious advice on how to grow plants). He based this on his personal experience, which is that he was finding many of the tubers he was looking for to already be sold out.

This put me in complete panic mode. While I have been perusing various dahlia sites, I hadn't yet pulled the trigger on anything other than an obscene amount of Cafe au Lait dahlias (which I really have no business growing; they will need to be staked and I'm horrible about staking things until they have already flopped over). But a dahlia shortage? Oh my gosh. Must buy all the dahlias. Now.

A dahlia from 2013. Sadly I have no idea which one it was.

So I went on a tear over at Swan Island Dahlias. And then I found another one I needed so I had to order from somewhere else. And then it struck me that I may have gone overboard, so I went through my notes and added it up: 44 dahlia tubers (including a couple freebies from a bulk purchase) are on their way to me this spring. And I put another 20 in storage (although I don't count on that working, I may have let them dry out too much before I stored them in late fall). I have a bigger-than-average garden, but that is way too much.

Last year I got really into the poms and more formal dahlias.

And as long as I'm confessing to gardening purchasing sins, in addition to an absolutely ridiculous seed order that will require me to move out of entire rooms of the house if I'm to start them all inside, I have also already purchased three clematis and one rose.

This is all in a season in which we intend to buy three trees, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that you don't skimp on trees.

My only hope for any money left in the bank account come July is that I'm successful in my seed-growing, as I'm hoping that many of the annuals I grow this year will be grown from seed. If that works out, the "budget" (there is no budget) may balance out a little better.

See what winter can do to a gardener? It's not good. However, I have decided that by publicly confessing my winter plant shopping sins, all will be absolved. So feel free to free yourself from your burden in the comments. I won't tell.


A GRAND SEED-STARTING SCHEME

It is mind boggling to me that last year was the first in my life that I have started seeds indoors to give the garden a jump start. I’ve done a lot of growing from seeds planted directly in the garden, but I last year was the first year that I’ve started things inside.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. The best part was having something to do that is remotely related to gardening at the time of the year when I so desperately want to do it, but it is way too early to do anything outside. 



I’ve always thought that one of the best parts of gardening was the satisfaction that comes from seeing something that you’ve nurtured flourish. As I discovered vegetable gardening, that satisfaction only multiplied. But to grow something from seed in your basement and have it end up on your table as part of a delicious meal is perhaps the ultimate in gardening satisfaction.

It’s also an incredibly frugal way to make a garden. Of course there’s no point in fooling yourself that you grew something for the price of a seed. There is seed-starting mix and potting mix to be purchased. Seed trays, small pots and energy to run the seed-starting mats and grow light. I don’t know what that all adds up to; whatever it is, it was worth it. 

I have a lot of seed starting plans for this year. It’s probably more than is practical given the limited space and single grow light that I have but restraint has never been my strong suit. Some things that I started indoors last year will be directly sown due to space constraints. Other things, particularly flowers, will be started inside with my fingers tightly crossed.

There is some science to growing from seeds. There is a right time to start seeds indoors so they don’t suffer as they outgrow a tiny pot while you wait for the weather to warm up so they can go outside. Every seed has conditions it likes. Many want some heat to get started. Others need darkness or light. Some are very fussy about the size of the pot they are in. How’s a garden supposed to know it all?

This year I've relied on a few sources to gather information on all of the things I plan to grow from seed. The first is a book called Annuals and Tender Plants for North American Gardens by Wayne Winterrowd. This out of print book (I found it on Amazon and it came as a retired library book, sadly hardly used) was suggested by Matt Mattus of Growing with Plants and I think it's an excellent reference book for any serious gardener. The second book is one I was sent for review, The Edible Garden by Alys Fowler (of occasional British gardening television fame). This has wonderful information on growing almost anything edible and is presented in a very colorful and fun-to-look-at manner. These are two books I'll definitely keep in my gardening library for the long term. And the last source, of course, is the Internet.

Online, I started with Margaret Roach’s seed starting guide and worked from there using the books for more detailed information. I compiled all the information onto a spreadsheet so I know when to start seeds, what they need for germination or any other growing tips and when to transplant them outside. I just wanted a place with all the information in one glance, rather than having to try looked it all up with dirt on my hands. 


Here’s what it looks like so far. There are a few things to add to my chart, but this is a start.


The great news is that I’m just a couple weeks away from starting a few things which means that I will be officially gardening, not just mentally gardening. It will be good for my brain not to mention my gardening soul.

Are you planning to start some things from inside this year?

FRIDAY FINDS

Well, in case you didn't figure out it after the absence following my last post, I did make it to Florida, although by the time you read this I'll be on my way home. It was a short trip but at this time of year, any bit of sunshine and warmth is welcome.


Speaking of warmth, the USDA has changed the plant hardiness map again. I think the last change was just a couple years ago and there were some rather drastic changes. This is a nice map because you can enter you zip code and get a close-up view of your zone (after you get through an annoying captcha code).

Are you sick of me talking about Monty Don yet? If not, here's my Monty man talking about nurturing the soil and our fellow human beings.

Here's some great advice to consider before buying a rose.

And if you need to be doing some gardening, well Heather has a few suggestions of things you can be doing now.

This is a fascinating interview about willows. I can't say I've ever thought too much of the lowly willow but this has me rethinking that opinion.

And I leave you this Friday with a glimpse of some of the lovely orchids I saw at the Naples Botanical Garden. That lady slipper in particular was absolutely amazing.



A SNOWY WRINKLE TO A DRIVEWAY IDEA

Remember back in fall when I shared my idea to line the apron of the driveway with containerized trees? I wouldn’t say that the reaction from readers was enthusiastic.

I completely understand why. It’s not entirely congruous with the rest of the yard and several people had warranted concerns about the care that containerized trees would require, to say nothing of how much that whole scheme would cost. These are all good points and I’m very thankful for them. Were it not for the rather lukewarm reception to the idea, I might be out hundreds (or, ugh, thousands) of dollars in containers for this harebrained scheme.

I do this sometimes, have a random idea pop into my head and get so excited about it that I get almost obsessed with it, even if I know it’s not a perfect plan. There will be more of these (in fact I’m cooking up another weird gardening idea now but I’m not to the point where it’s real enough to bother mentioning).

A few people suggested doing some nice plantings along that edge of the driveway; perhaps something asymmetrical, but balanced, that would be more in keeping with the rest of the garden. That is an excellent idea, but I knew immediately that wouldn’t work.

Here’s why.


We got our first “real” snowstorm of the year on Sunday. I know it was considered real because it forced the cancellation of most of the flights at the Milwaukee airport. I know that because I was supposed to be on one and I was supposed to wake up Monday morning looking at palm trees and neither of those things happened.

And while the interruption to my travel plans was a bummer, it did allow me to snap a couple photos of the snow situation here, which I wanted to share to show you why permanent plantings won’t work along the apron. As you can see, massive piles of snow are dumped there when we have our driveway plowed. And while perennials seem to do OK buried (some years the pile has extended into the circle garden), no small tree would be able to tolerate that kind of abuse.

Here was a badly Photoshopped idea to illustrate my idea and a real-time photo after the snowstorm.



I haven’t made any decisions about flanking the apron with anything yet. To be honest I have mentally spent a good part of the plant budget for the year (disclaimer: There is no real budget but I have a general concept of when I’ve spent too much and given the potential cost of the containerized tree idea, there wouldn’t be a lot left in the kitty for anything else).


So, for not, that plan remains on the proverbial drawing board, along with several others that range from doable to completely outlandish but very fun.