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GROW INSPIRED: Q&A WITH GARDEN EXPERT 'THE SEED MAN'

Our #GrowInspired series features our innovative and creative garden partners. Whether they’re working with two acres or 200 square feet, we are constantly in awe of their hard work and kick-ass gardens. These are some of our favorite gardens and gardeners who inspire us to get out and play in the dirt.

Mike Lizotte, better known as The Seed Man to those in the garden biz, has been living and breathing wildflowers since he was a teenager. With over 30 years of “seed slinging” experience, Mike is now co-owner of American Meadows and High Country Gardens, a master gardener, president of the Home Garden Seed Association, board member of the National Garden Bureau, author of the book Mini Meadows: Grow a Little Patch of Colorful Flowers Anywhere around Your Yard, husband, father, and avid hockey player/ref. Somehow Mike found the time to answer some questions about his history with wildflower seeds, his ever-changing gardens, and his popular book.

First thing’s first. How did you get the nickname ‘The Seed Man?’

When I first started with American Meadows it was known as the Vermont Wildflower Farm. We had a retail store in this funky old building, with a gift shop on the upper level. It was a tourist attraction — people would come from all over the country to visit the farm during the summer. 

The downstairs level is where we sold the seeds. We called it the seed shop. The way the foot traffic flowed, visitors had to walk through the main entrance and then go downstairs to get to it. That's where you'd find me sitting behind the counter. People always remarked "you must be the seed man!’ I thought it was a pretty clever name. And because everyone called me Seed Man it's stuck since the 90’s.

You’re co-owner of American Meadows. How did that happen?

I've had one real job in my entire life, which is working for American Meadows, Now I’m fortunate enough to own the company. Going back to the late 80’s, when i was in high school, a friend who worked there asked me if I wanted to make a few extra bucks helping to unload a large seed shipment. After that, the owners — Chy & Ray Allen — needed additional help with various tasks around the property. So they asked me if I wanted to paint the fence and tend to the wildflowers. I said sure. That’s how it started, as an after-school and weekend job through high school. 

As I kept working there I began to learn more and more about the flowers. I then graduated into working in the retail store packing seeds, and stuff like that. I did that job through high school and college. After graduating my role shifted more into sales, as the company transformed; becoming one of the first gardening companies to sell products on the Internet in the 90’s and early 2000’s.

In 2006 I approached [the owner] Ray about a buyout. Business was going well and they were getting older. I kind of sensed that they were probably beginning to form an exit strategy. So I asked them if they would allow me to put together a business plan and proposal to purchase the company. Right away I asked a buddy of mine from high school (Ethan Platt) to be my partner and to help me put together the business plan.Three years later we bought the company and  became owners of American Meadows. And now 11 years later, we’ve gone on to acquire two more gardening companies, High Country Gardens and Landreth Seeds. We now employ over 80 people, and have distribution centers in Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Utah. It’s been quite the journey these past 30+ years.

The vegetable garden replaced a big portion of their lawn

What does your home garden look like?

I live with my wife and daughter Sadie, in a town called Essex Junction, Vermont (Zone 4b). We’ve been here for about eight years now. When we moved into our house, it was a typical suburban neighborhood yard. We’re on 7/10ths of an acre that had a nice, manicured front lawn and side yard. Right away I was like, ‘OK this needs some more color.’ With gardening appeal in mind, we began the transformation! We started by converting part of the lawn into a wildflower meadow. Next up we put in the vegetable garden.

In the beginning our vegetable garden was about 300 square feet. It’s now over 800 square feet. I seem to expand it every year. That's been a lot of fun. We also continuously expand our mini wildflower meadow. Also we’ve put in plenty of perennial plugs. In fact just last weekend my daughter and I planted about 1,000 Tulip bulbs, which we do every fall. It’s so rewarding to see the results in the spring and summer. 

Our house is on a dead-end corner, but we have a lot of foot traffic through the neighborhood. People are always walking or biking by. I can’t tell you how many compliments we get as we evolve the garden each year. So many people say they can’t wait to see what's new, and tell us how much they enjoy all the colors in the gardens.

Just some of the 500+ lbs of produce Mike and his family grew in their garden this summer.

This year, one of my goals was to see how much produce we could grow and harvest. Even though I lost track eventually, I had been pretty disciplined through most of the summer. All in all we harvested over 500 pounds of produce, which I shared with about 15 neighbors. Once a week we put our masks on, filled up a wagon and went around dropping produce off at people’s doorsteps. It was really fun and so rewarding. You don’t need acres and acres of land to have a productive garden. In a small space you can grow lots of great stuff.

How do you get your family involved in gardening?

We garden as a family. My wife Rachael doesn’t have a garden background, plus it wasn’t high on her interest list when we first married. But through the years it’s definitely grown on her (no pun intended). Now I'm finding Rachael out there helping me more and more. Our daughter Sadie, has grown up gardening. Before we purchased our house and installed gardens in Essex Junction, we tended a big garden at American Meadow's office in Williston, Vermont. 

I remember Sadie helping me plant peas and work in that garden when she was really young. Now that our gardens are at our home, she’s out in it trying to learn as much as she can. I’ve had a lot of fun teaching her about plants and gardening. The past several years I’ve been invited to speak about pollinators at her preschool and grade school. I always tell them how a decline in pollinators could have such a big impact on our food system. Now that she's in the garden with me all the time, it’s a great bonding activity. Bonus that it's affordable, too.

We don't spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on plants and tools. Mostly just a few bucks on a packet of seeds. During the pandemic, like most people, we’ve been stuck at home. Gardening as a family has been a great way to spend time together.

Mike's daughter, Sadie, has loved gardening since she was little.

Your personal and professional life revolve a lot around gardening. Why do you find it so rewarding?

Although it’s nice to have successes, for me it’s not about being able to brag about a certain flower I’ve grown, or how successful I am. It's more about being able to work with the public, and get them excited and interested in gardening. As I've learn more through the years, it's become more about sharpening my skills and craft - growing with experience. I find it much more rewarding sharing that wisdom with other gardeners. Hopefully educating and inspiring them to go outside and get growing. Whether that’s planting a meadow or vegetables or putting a bulb in the garden. That’s really what struck a chord with me at an early age.

Before/After: Mike's mini meadow at his home. 

Looking back to when I was a teenager working at the seed shop; I was nervous. But I was coached and read a lot of books about flowers. Now when I'm talking to people I like to share my advice on what to plant. I'm always amazed when customers come back the next year and say, ‘Mike the flowers were great, and I really want to thank you for your knowledge and experience. We did exactly what you said and it turned out great.’ That feels good. 

As the years have gone by I’ve become a master gardener, but I'm still always learning. My favorite activity is just tinkering and trying new things. It brings me joy when i can share what I’ve learned with a wider audience.

If you could give one piece of gardening advice, what would it be?

This is probably too simple, but you should really start with reading the instructions that come with whatever it is you’re planting — whether it's seeds, a bulb, or a seedling. I’m always somewhat shocked when talking with people who've bought something to plant, who then say they're ready to dive right in. But when I ask them if they’ve read the instructions they say ‘no, not really.’ The instructions are always a good starting point. It's best to begin with the basics when you’re new to gardening. I want to set people up for success. So it’s important to start with the foundational knowledge on the proper way to plant and care for your flowers, veggies, fruit, whatever you grow. 

Mike and his family plant Tulips every year together.

Also, keep a positive attitude! We all kill stuff when we garden. That's part of it. So don’t get too frustrated. Gardening is fun, but it also takes time to see the fruits of your labor. Plants take time to develop and mature, so you just have to be patient. If you go into it with that mindset you'll find gardening very enjoyable. Perhaps even becoming an activity that you latch onto and do for the rest of your life.

What was the inspiration for your book, Mini Meadows: Grow a Little Patch of Colorful Flowers Anywhere around Your Yard?

In 2015, I was attending a conference in California and was approached by someone from Story Publishing. I started telling her my story and she was like, ‘Have you ever thought about writing a book?’ I hadn’t, but she thought I had a good story to tell. So that’s how it all began. 

The book is really about redefining what the word ‘meadow’ means. In people’s minds, when they first hear the word ‘meadow’ they think of a large swath of wildflowers and sprawling fields. But that’s not the case. You can have a meadow in any space. My little meadow at home is 500 square feet. A meadow can be any size, any shape, and really contain any type of flowers that you want. The benefits of having even a tiny meadow are huge. 

You'd be surprised to learn how converting even a little portion of your lawn into a flower meadow will result in a positive impact on pollinators. Meadows can also be easy problem-solvers for places on your property that may need soil stabilization...places that don’t get a ton of supplemental water…. and the list goes on and on. That's the premise and inspiration behind it. it's been a fun project for me, and people seem to really love the book, which is a thrill.

We’d love to send you some C-BITEs! How will you use them in your garden next year?

I’ll definitely use them in my vegetable garden. I’ve actually expanded it to include Dahlias, which I’ve never done before. Recently, I met Erin and Chris from Floret Flower Farms in Washington State. They really inspired me to plant Dahlias this year. I had one row in my vegetable garden that was about 30 feet long. It turned out great. My goal next year is to expand this row and plant even more!. I’m planning on using C-BITEs to support the Dahlias, as well as for some of my vegetables. 

I’m really excited to try them out. Last year I used stakes, which was fine. But it could have been much better (editors note: C-BITEs make plant supports fun, easy and SO much better!). I am planning to use them in a more formal way by incorporating them in the actual planning and design of the garden (editors note: yay!)

You can follow Mike on Instagram @mike_theseedman and purchase his Mini Meadows book here. Looking for the best wildflowers? Check out AmericanMeadows.com.

This winter, Mike turned his vegetable garden into a ice rink for his hockey-loving family!


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