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Seed Pioneer Renee Shepherd and the Gardening Life

Renee Shepherd (DGE’65, CAS’67) mortgaged her house in the early 1980s to become a seed distributor, becoming a respected and influential resource to gardeners around the world.

Seed Pioneer Renee Shepherd and the Gardening Life

Founder and owner of Renee’s Garden nurtures a “sacred obligation”
  • Megan Woolhouse
  • Gabriela Hasbun

It wasn’t that long ago that American salads were a predictable if joyless mix of innocuous iceberg lettuce, insipid cucumber, and mealy tomato creating the canvas for bottled salad dressing.

Renee Shepherd, the central California gardening guru, helped change that. Her fascination with peppery arugula, curly endive, ruffled red mustard greens, and a host of other lettuces from around the world popularized mesclun mix in the early 1980s, long before it was a staple of American supermarkets. And she was part of the cultural shift that begat California cuisine, with its health-centric emphasis on farm-to-table eating.

Shepherd, the founder and owner of Renee’s Garden, is reluctant to take credit for being a part of what she calls a cultural movement that involved many people (including chefs like Alice Waters). Instead, she says gardening has been her calling.

“Growing things is a sacred obligation I should encourage in other people,” Shepherd says. “I feel somewhat missionary about it.”

Celebrity chefs might get a lot of the credit for modern food innovations, but for 35 years, Shepherd (DGE’65, CAS’67) has been a quiet pioneer in the seed world, using her own style of entrepreneurship to introduce farmers, gardeners, and anyone with a porch and a pot about how to grow their own healthy food. Her company sells about 4.5 million seed packets annually to growers in a typical year, although business surged this year as customers took up gardening during the pandemic.

A section of the test garden on Shepherd’s four-acre property in Felton, Calif., in the mountains outside Santa Cruz.

Each packet comes with Shepherd’s seal of approval; after discovering a new variety in her travels or through her vast global network of seed sellers, she brings the finds into her trial garden, a four-acre plot in the yard of her home in the Santa Cruz mountains. That’s where she tests 300 to 400 varieties of seeds, from personal-size lemons and cantaloupes and unusual varieties of eggplants in five colors, to the richest peppers for make-your-own paprika.

She’s also testing new varieties of old favorites, such as dwarf white cosmos from six different vendors, new heat-tolerant lettuces, and is on an eternal quest to offer the best flat leaf Italian parsley. Browse her website and find a Portuguese kale offered nowhere else or Alice Waters’ favorite variety of nasturtium. The list goes on and on, with new colors of cornflower perfect for drying and hard-to-find green beans used in paella along the coast of Spain.

“All seeds have a story,” Shepherd says. “They’re inherently fascinating.”

A Seed Business Sprouts

Shepherd’s seed business sprang up seemingly from nowhere. After earning a PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz (in the history of consciousness), she taught university courses in environmental science at UCSC and hosted soccer games and brunch for graduate students, including many from Europe who were more familiar with the sport. Those games in the field behind her home provided an unlikely path forward.

At one game, a Dutch friend who later became a top executive at Ball Seed Co., shared a few varieties of gourmet garden seeds with Shepherd, touting Dutch, French, Italian, and other heirloom varieties of lettuce for their superior flavor. Most were unavailable in the US at the time and Shepherd seized on the business opportunity. She mortgaged her house and dove in, opening a small mail-order seed distribution company in 1983 that featured mostly uncommon vegetable varieties.

It was the right place at the right time; nearby Santa Cruz was a center of the US organic agriculture movement and was teeming with small farmers, as well as college students, surfers, and East Coast expats who shared a common interest in healthy and flavorful food.

Garden guru Renee Shepherd (DGE’65, CAS’67), founder and owner of Renee’s Garden, has been a force in the seed distribution world since the 1980s.