This is the time of year that many gardeners start ordering their seeds for the coming summer. One of the best and most interesting seed catalogs has always been Shepherd's Garden Seeds. Their catalog is geared to the "gourmet" cook and gardener who enjoys unusual varieties of produce. Onlinechef's Anne Bain & Cathy Galvin interviewed Renee Shepherd, founder of Shepherd's Garden Seeds, at one of Santa Cruz, California's most unique restaurants, India Joze. Renee has just finished writing her third cookbook with her business partner, Fran Raboff. Like her two previous books, Recipes from a Kitchen Garden and More Recipes from a Kitchen Garden, Renee's third book is centered around the bounty of a home cook's garden. I've used both of her previous books, especially during harvest time when I'm faced with too many zucchinis or tomatoes; the recipes are simple, elegant and they work. Let's join the conversation...

Onlinechef: One of the things I've always enjoyed about your catalog is the beautiful artwork and incredible variety of seeds. How do you maintain such a high level of perfection with each catalog?

Renee: Well, we've used the same artist for all our catalogs and cookbooks for years. That way we're guaranteed continuity throughout the years. With the seeds, I've worked with only quality growers throughout the world. Growing seeds is both an art and a science. We buy seeds from all over the world, beans from Idaho, tomatoes from South America, squash from South America. I have growers in England, Holland, France, Italy, Japan, Thailand, Mexico, Chile, Ecuador, and China. In addition, I've traveled to different countries to see seed trials and to search for new growers. For example, to make proper Thai food, you need Thai basil, a strain of basil common to Thailand but, until recently, impossible to find in the US until we started offering it in our catalog. Now you can go to a produce department of a grocery store here in California and find Thai basil in the bins.

Onlinechef: Wow, sounds like you've been quite influential in the changing tastes of the American cooking public. What other trends in food have you noticed- where do you think food is headed in the USA?

Renee: Well, definately food has become much more ethnic. It's also more vegetable oriented and not just among the growing population of vegetarians. Food is less "busy", less involved and headed towards more basic, less constructed forms. People want to taste the major ingredients in their food. Our catalog reflects that interest in both ethnic produce and good, honest produce.

Onlinechef: Renee, how did you get started in the business? I assume you've always had an interest in both food and gardening but how did you make the jump to seed catalogs?

Renee: When I was a Ph.D teaching environmental sciences here at Santa Cruz, I had a big garden outside my house. I had invited several friends to play soccer in my back yard. One of the graduate students, who was Dutch, brought her husband along to the soccer game. He represented a large Dutch seed grower, and after looking around my garden plot, he told me that he had a lot of European varieties that were bred for fresh eating qualities rather than commercial purposes. I grew them, thought they were wonderful, and thought that other gardeners would enjoy them as much as I did and that's how I got started.

Onlinechef: What trends do you see in the way people are gardening now? For example, what sort of seeds are customers ordering from the catalog?

Renee: Tomatoes are always popular but unusual varieties and hierlooms have become something of a trend. For example, pink Japanese tomatoes are being ordered by our customers. Also, eggplant, especially the quick cooking varieties such as Asian Bride, have gained interest lately. Chilis are always a "hot" item, especially among male gardeners. The hotter, the better. In fact, that's another food trend, very spicy foods. One of the most well-known food festivals is the Fiery Food Festival held every year in Albuquerque, New Mexico; I'm sure several of our chilis are represented in the hot sauces of the festival.

Onlinechef: What about a few tips to those folks who are ordering seeds from the catalog. I know that Shepherd's has always geared its catalog to the beginning/intermediate gardener, giving detailed directions for each seed in the catalog. What basic tips could you give our readers?

Renee: Well, the trick is to start the seeds for fruiting plants, like tomatoes and peppers, indoors so that they are ready to be planted outdoors when the night temperature is a consistant 50F. That requires a little timing on your part. Also, the seeds are only as good as the soil they are planted in- remember to add organic material to amend your soil before planting. Most garden vegetable plants need 6 hours of sunlight a day so make sure the days are long enough to support your seedlings.

Onlinechef: Any final comments regarding your catalog and gardening in general?

Renee: There is nothing so satisfying as eating what you've grown in your garden. Learn how to use your garden throughout the year. Start small, talk to friends who also garden. Gardening is a human art that is a pleasure to learn and share. Build and strengthen your community through gardening and enjoy the bounty of your own back yard.

Please remember to visit Shepherd's Seed Catalog at their website or email them at Starting in February, the entire catalog will be online and you will be able to order directly from the web for the Spring 1997 season. Happy Gardening!