Renee Shepherd looks forward to daylight saving time. Every year, as the days grow longer, she can spend more time in her garden after long, stressful hours in her office. Some evenings, she doesn’t come in to have dinner till after 10:00 p.m.
The self-described “seedswoman” has been in the garden business for the past 28 years. Her company, Renee's Garden, specializes in fine vegetable, herb and flower seeds from around the world. It can take three to four years to develop a particular variety, as her team rigorously tests seeds in five different trial gardens around the country. Those that make it into her online catalog are often exclusive and always unusual.
Growing up in Euclid, Ohio, Renee has little inkling that her academic interests would lead to gardening. When she ventures out to California to attend UC Santa Cruz, she finds a beautiful campus situated between a redwood forest and a pristine beach. The newly opened university is the first to offer a doctorate program in the History of Consciousness. After earning her PhD, Renee begins teaching in the Environmental Studies department, but grows increasingly conscious that an academic career would be limited as a non-tenure track instructor.
She gardens at home to connect with nature, feel productive and share with her community. Her four-acre property includes a pasture where she invites graduate students to play soccer. On one occasion, an international student brings along her husband, a salesman for a Dutch seed company. He takes one look at Renee’s garden-variety plants and suggests she explore much more interesting, European species. A forward thinker, she sees a potential market for heirloom and gourmet seeds. Renee quits her job, mortgages her house and starts her first company, Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, in 1985.
Early on, she travels the world, building relationships with seed growers and breeders. Some of her discoveries include mesclun from France, Chioggia beets from Italy and the most fragrant sweet peas from New Zealand. Her pasture turns into a trial garden for 400 different varieties of seeds she offers by mail order. When White Flower Farms offers to buy her company in 1988, Renee takes the opportunity to merge resources and enjoy some financial backing. However, with the sale comes tremendous pressure to drive revenues, and she finds herself spending most of her time in meetings or in front of a computer. Renee leaves the company in 1997, buying back its customer list of garden center retailers. Without her at its helm, Shepherd’s Garden Seeds closes about five years later.
For her new startup, Renee’s Garden, in 1998, she brings together a team of trusted old colleagues and family. It includes her sister, Sue Shecket, who administers her website and runs the trial garden in Seattle. Sue’s daughter, Sarah Renfro, joins Renee about eight years ago, as her day-to-day business manager in Santa Cruz. “It makes for an interesting Thanksgiving dinner,” Sarah says. “Work and personal stuff get all mixed together within a span of five minutes.”
Mixing happens to be one of Renee’s specialties. She combines certain seeds so that a single packet contains the perfect bouquet of flowers or tricolor carrots or mix of baby lettuces. Before she hosted her own Thanksgiving dinners, Renee would get insistently invited to other people’s holiday meals. "It turns out they were happy to see me," she says, "but much more excited to see my salad."
To make sure everyone gets great results, Renee personally writes the instructions on her beautifully illustrated seed packets. If something does go wrong, she treats customers as fellow gardeners and truly tries to solve their problems. One man calls, ranting about how her seeds are “rotten”. It turns out that he plants them in his garage, without light, in sub-freezing temperatures. Devona Finney, her customer service rep, cheerfully handles every such call and email. A Brighton Collectibles fan, Devona understands how important good customer service can be for a brand. “We make sure people are happy,” she says.
Beyond her company, Renee shares her expertise through her cookbooks and blog, at speaking engagements and in appearances on TV and radio programs. In 2009, the Congressional Club asks her to donate seed packets for the gift bags at its annual First Lady’s Luncheon. At the VIP reception, she meets Michelle Obama and presents her with a personal selection of seeds for the White House garden. At the lunch, surrounded by congressional spouses, Renee listens intently and relates to the first lady’s speech about community service.
In many ways, it reflects Renee’s heightened awareness of the social, economic and health conditions affecting the planet. For her part, she gives back through seed donations and financial support to organizations and educational programs worldwide. Last year, she adopted the Health, Wellness and Environmental Studies School (HWES) in Jonesboro, Arkansas. About 70 percent of the kids at that school come from low-income families who live without any connection to nature. The program transforms three weed-infested courtyards and an abandoned cafeteria into a greenhouse, three gardens and two kitchens. Melinda Smith, the program administrator, marvels at how much kids like eating from the gardens, and how it engages their parents as well. “The kids have taken ownership,” she says. “They’ll eat the produce because it’s theirs. Then after they learn, they want to do it at home.”
Not only does Renee donate seeds and a portion of sales to the program, she also advises whenever the kids need help. “I’m just a plain old teacher who didn’t know anything about gardening,” says Melinda. She develops a two-year phone/email relationship with Renee before finally meeting her during a family trip to California last summer. After walking through Renee’s lovely grounds and enjoying her hospitality over a garden-to-table dinner, Melinda says, “You can’t do what she does without a very giving heart.”
With her background in consciousness, Renee seems acutely aware that she leads a satisfying "lifestyle business" with opportunities to do things that matter. She sees that sustainable, organic gardening produces tremendous good, whether for the planet, the home gardener or the needy community. “I can make so much good by giving to Melinda and others,” she says. “How many people can say that?”
Over the next decade, she hopes to ensure that her company remains a perennial. She wants to figure out how to replace herself so that Renee’s Garden lives on, doing good seeds and good deeds. Then while there’s still light out, she plans to spend more time in her garden.