Empowering gardeners through seed packets
BROOMFIELD — As Cicero said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need,” and a Colorado company is helping gardens to flourish with a veritable encyclopedia of information with every packet of its seeds.
Botanical Interests has provided quality seed and education to gardeners for nearly 20 years, and occupies a unique niche in the seed company market.
Inside an unassuming, metal building in an industrial part of Broomfield, this company focuses on a deeper mission than succeeding in business — this place is about empowering gardeners, instilling a love of working the earth and encouraging gardeners to get involved in their landscapes and food supply. Providing quality seed with superb customer service and appealing to the art and science of gardening were all part of the dream for owners Curtis Jones and Judy Seaborn.
The seed for Botanical Interests was planted long before this place existed.
In 1989, Jones, who has a master’s degree in plant science, was interviewing for a sales job with a California grower. While waiting for the interview, he noticed this cute gal, who was also interviewing for the job. He immediately knew she would get the job, and she did. But six months later, Seaborn contacted Jones and gave him a lead on a client. They arranged to meet for dinner and the match was made.
After the 1989 San Francisco earthquake literally shook their world, the couple decided to relocate to Colorado, where they would raise their daughters, Catherine and Sophia. Jones took a job with a seed company in the Boulder area.
“About four years into working there, I started to get migraines for the first time in my life and I realized it had a lot to do with what was happening at that company, and that we could do it better,” Jones said. So, they did.
Five years after moving to Colorado, the couple started Botanical Interests in 1995, in their home. Collages of photos leading up the Botanical Interests’ office stairway show how boxes of seeds took over their home as the business grew in its formative years. The venture soon moved to an office in Boulder, and later to Broomfield.
When the operation was in the couple’s house, they offered 96 varieties of seeds. Now, the company sources more than 600 different kinds of seed, with more than half of its inventory classified as heirloom seed and including more than 150 certified organic varieties. Some varieties originate from as far away as the Middle East and Europe.
In the warehouse, workers keep three seed-filling machines humming constantly. One packs tiny carrot seeds by weight, quickly dispensing the fragrant Danvers carrot seeds into the packets and filling the warehouse with a sweet carrot perfume. Another packs tomato seeds, carefully monitoring the equipment to make sure the seed count per packet is accurate. And a third employee on the seed-packing line rushes to keep up with mung beans, quickly swallowed by the hopper into the machine, which funnels them into envelopes and seals the flaps. With these high-tech machines, they can pack up to 90 packets per minute, depending on the seed.
At another table, another employee packs seeds by hand. He carefully measures out 2.5 grams of Corsican gourd seeds, which are too irregularly shaped to go through the machine, into each packet.
On the “pick line,” employees fill orders for the company’s 3,000 retail-store customers and from individuals, searching among the boxes of alphabetized seeds and picking packets for each order.
Seaborn’s shadow, Buddy the English Lab, dutifully follows her through the warehouse and keeps tabs on all the employees during the day. Today, Buddy is one of four dogs that came to work with employees, mascots for the seed company and evidence of the laid-back attitude that tempers all the hard work that goes on there.
A few traits of Botanical Interests set it apart from other seed companies.
Attention to quality and customer service are paramount. Although the company ships roughly 10 million packets of seed per year, it retains a passion for its product and attention to detail as well as its customers’ demands.
“We’re in the position where we’re bigger than the little companies, but we’re still small enough to pay attention to the quality and we’re big enough to be able to add new varieties but still keep varieties that might not be that popular but they’re still good,” Jones said.
Visitors to Botanical Interests’ factory immediately encounter Jones’ love of photography and appreciation for the visual arts — customer photos and his own portraits of jewel-toned vegetables and flowers they’ve grown with the company’s seed decorate the entryway.
Botanical Interests commissions illustrations for the seed packets from artists with the Denver Botanic Gardens’ School of Botanic Art and Illustration. The artists render portraits of the flowers and vegetables with remarkable scientific accuracy as well as beauty.
The visual element of the illustrations isn’t just a matter of taste, it’s smart marketing. “Gardening is art and science, and we wanted to show that,” Jones said. “And 80 percent of the people who buy our products are women, and they respond to that.”
Part of the company’s mission centers on educating and supporting home gardeners so they get great results from the seed they’ve purchased. Jones found many customers didn’t learn to garden from their parents, and a generation of gardeners missed out on that learning.
“It became so easy for people to get food, we took it for granted and people lost that knowledge,” he said.
But now, with the right variety of seed and the proper technique, aspiring gardeners can experience that success and joy from growing their own food and flowers. Botanical Interests is one of the few seed companies of its size to employ a full-time horticulturist to help with education.
Inside each beautifully illustrated packet is specific information on the origins of each variety, an illustration of the seedling for identification, information on when the variety produces fruit or blooms. It also includes historical information, special germination instructions and optimal growing conditions. Some even have recipes or other interesting botanical facts. And the artwork on the packet is beautiful enough to frame, which some people do.
Upstairs at the office overlooking the warehouse, a row of grow lights and seed-starting shelves are ready to begin this year’s crop of test plants.
“It helps us keep connected,” Jones said. “We still grow things, even though we get busy.”
Seaborn plants all the varieties at their test garden, in their yard at home in Niwot, to see how they perform in Colorado’s unique high-altitude climate.
Starting with a quality product is important to Botanical Interests. When Botanical Interests receives seeds from one of its sources around the world, the first item of business is testing that seed for its germination rate to assure its quality. Every variety has a different required germination rate, required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Botanical Interests actually enforces more stringent standards than those federal requirements.
While the company offers more than 300 varieties of heirloom seeds, they’ve culled the less-desirable heirlooms in favor of those that actually perform well.
“Some heirlooms aren’t around anymore for a reason,” Jones said. “They’re disease-ridden or prone to other problems and they don’t grow well.”
The future of this family-owned enterprise is bright, if it keeps growing the way it has in the past. But it hasn’t been easy. The road was paved with sweat equity, help from relatives, credit card debt used to fuel the business and a lot of risk. Although Jones is amazed when he looks at the venture he’s built with his wife, he’s glad they planted that seed for the business nearly 20 years ago, and they plan on growing it even more.
“You dream of things and you do everything you can to get it to come together, and it takes longer than you think and it’s harder than you think,” Jones said. “But it happens.”
Visit Botanical Interests at botanicalinterests.com, or check out its variety of seeds carried at various local retailers including independent garden centers, Vitamin Cottage and Ace Hardware.