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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.”

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