Monday, April 19, 2010

Grow Your Own!

This first appeared in the Left Hand Valley Courier in 2007 as part of my Vicinity And Beyond series.

Botanical Interests sells seeds nationwide through garden centers and similar businesses. Seeds varieties include edible and non-edible flowers, herbs and vegetables, and even sprouts and microgreens. If you want to grow some your own food, you don't have to look much further. And of you don't have garden space, or even room for some containers, you've can still grow sprouts.

The company recently started selling seeds online and just produced its first catalog. I had heard that things had changed at the company itself, so I recently went back for another visit.

The office area has been remodeled, including a new cafeteria for the employees, and there are now photos of all the employees gracing the walls. Another wall showcases photos that customers have sent of the plants and flowers growing in their own gardens.

Also new is an area where seeds are started for employees to take home for their own gardens. Coming soon are some redesigned seed packets. The watercolor designs will stay, but the packets are getting just a bit of an upgrade, including a better way of distinguishing which seeds are certified as organic.

But the old article is still timely. As we creep into planting season, it's interesting to take a look at one of the companies that handles the seeds that you might plant this spring that will bring food to your table later in the year.

The Seediest Place Ever

If you’re a gardener, you’ve probably browsed the racks of seeds at garden shops, looking for just the right flowers, vegetables or herbs. Did you ever wonder where all those seed packets come from?

The answer, at least for some of them, is that they’re packaged right here in Vicinity. Botanical Interests, a seed packaging company that ships nationwide (and further) has its roots in Niwot and its plant (puns intended) in Broomfield.

Curtis Jones, the Courier’s very own photographer, owns the blossoming business with his wife, Judy. Started in 1995, Botanical Interests shipped its first seeds in March of 1996 and has been growing ever since.

A series of calendars in the warehouse tracks the company’s sales from its first bloom to the present. Jones noted that at first, he did all the work himself, from receiving to packing to shipping, but now he’s seeing the fruits of his labor – this year has started as the best yet.

Jones was working for another seed company when “the entrepreneurial spirit took over.” Jokingly, he said that he “didn’t have enough debt and had too much free time,” but now he’s got plenty of debt and a lot less time.

“It’s hard being in business,” Jones said, noting the increased costs in insurance and the lag time between when he buys his bulk seeds and when he finally reaps the profits. “It’s a challenge, but it’s really fun,” he said, noting that his favorite part of the business is his employees.

Botanical Interests employees 22 people with an additional 50 independent sales reps who cultivate the sales to the 1500-plus retailers who sell Botanical Interests’ products.

Jones also contracts with local artists to illustrate his seed packets. The artwork begins as paintings, which are then scanned. That artwork is one of the things that distinguishes Botanical Interests’ packets from many others.

Besides the artwork, Jones noted that the information that consumers need most when choosing seeds – growing conditions, plant size, and other data – is on the front of the packet where it’s easy to find.

Not so easy to find, but like a treasure buried in every packet, is the information printed inside. There, you’ll find a veritable forest of information specific to the seeds, as well as other tidbits, including a bio of the artist.

Jones was particularly proud that his newly sprouted seed business instigated changes in the existing industry. “We wanted to buck the trend on quality and customer service,” Jones said. “We realized early on that we had to design the product for who is buying it.”

He explained that 75 percent of customers are female, and those who are 30 to 50 years old “did not learn to garden from their parents.” Thus, there was a need to educate a whole new crop of consumers about the seeds they bought. “We think of ourselves as an education company,” Jones said. “But we include the seeds.”

Among the challenges of the business is the heightened number of USDA inspections. He pointed to sacks that had been slit open for inspection, which often results in lost product.

By law, seed packets have to be labeled with a date, and sold within that year, but Jones explained that the date is not an expiration date – most seeds are still able to germinate after many years of storage. However, because of the law, seeds that remain unsold at the end of a season are unsalable.

Jones doesn’t dispose of the unsold seeds. Instead, his sales reps reclaim them and either give them to charities or return them to Botanical Interests. Jones then donates the seeds to local schools and other charitable organizations.

Jones and his wife Judy divide the business chores, with Judy handing the production end of things while Jones handles the sales and customer service.

Judy claimed that she had the best chore, as she leafed though folders full of plant descriptions. “I get to choose the plants,” she said, but noted that it’s hard to weed through all the selections to find the best.