When UCSC alumna Renee Shepherd opted out of an academic future and into the rarified world of heirloom growing, it was early days in the world of regional gardening. That was 25 years ago, and whether or not her PhD in History of Consciousness had anything to do with it, Shepherd struck up a friendship with a Dutch seed broker who basically planted the seed (so to speak) of her now-global heirloom seed business. The only thing that doesn't grow on Shepherd is moss. When not riding her horses or growing and testing up to 300 varieties of seeds each year, she writes award-winning books on cooking, pickling, canning, and growing that have become staples in contemporary kitchens and greenhouses.

Shepherd's own acres in the San Lorenzo Valley produce exciting newly discovered flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables from around the world. Her network of collectors, growers and far-flung seed savers could have taught Mark Zuckerberg a thing or two. And her own fascination with history and culture—and the seeds that carry those deep narratives in their own genetic memory—did the rest. But it comes as no surprise to those of us who have followed her astonishing career over the year, that Shepherd is still re-inventing her mission and throwing her considerable energies into yet new offshoots (sorry, it can't be helped) of her growth industry.

Her newest passion involves partnering with school programs focusing on garden “classrooms,” where young students can learn to grow nutritious foods, and then learn techniques to prepare and cook this freshly harvested produce. “Working with these programs is one of the very best parts of my job,” she recently told me, ” because I get to be involved with people giving hope and making real change.” Each year Renee's Garden donates seeds to organizations and schools working to improve economic conditions and to promote sustainable gardening. The Health, Wellness & Environmental Studies School in Jonesboro Arkansas is one of these beneficiaries. So is the Seeds for Peace International in Saratoga Springs, New York.  Closer to home, Renee's seeds fuel the “Food,What?” program in Santa Cruz, where teenage growers raise food for low income families. Shepherd's Fundraising Program for Schools and Non-Profits last year partnered with 77 organizations to further the ideals of sustainable growing, hands-on community involvement and terrific flavors. Her fans stay busy year-round just tuning in to the www.reneesgarden.com website, and cruising through the articles, growing tips, heirloom seed varieties and seed packets, and recipes. Kudos to Renee Shepherd, a woman who has put her time, energy, and creative intelligence where her mouth is.

Winter Chicories:We've been blown away by the non-stop variety of winter salads coming from the kitchen of Katherine Stern at La Posta. My recent favorite chicory salad from La Posta involved three gorgeous varieties of bitter chicories, purple radicchio and two other cousins, bathed in a lemony vinaigrette, and tossed with sliced oranges, pistchios and a ricotta salata cheese. The lovely tartness of the lettuces showed well against the succulent citrus and crunch of toasted nuts.

Culinary Kudos: Congratulations to Heidi Schlecht of Feed Good Foods Catering and Pim Techamuanvivit of Chez Pim for their winning recipes at this year's 3rd annual Good Food Awards. Schlecht's stunning Damson Plum Jam, and Chez Pim's Flavor King Pluot Jam were among the finalists, with Chez Pim taking the top award. Local Verve Coffee Roasters also won in their category with an Ethiopian Birhanu and Elida Estate Green-tip Gesha from Panama. Next time you're at your farmer's market, look for Schlect's Plumline label. And when you're at Verve (41st Avenue or downtown Santa Cruz) try one of the two award-winning coffees.