One Man's Vision

By David E. Els

Lyman Wood, the founder of National Gardening, about 1980.

I've got a question for you. If you sat down to have coffee with an honest-to-goodness, real-life visionary leader, would you know it? Would you recognize the personal qualities that distinguish him or her from so many others who have marvelous talents but very little vision? I had the opportunity to get to know Lyman Wood, the founder of Gardens for All, the precursor of today's National Gardening Association. And the answer is no. I didn't recognize or truly appreciate his visionary leadership until he was gone.

I was fortunate enough, however, to share a series of tunafish lunches with Lyman during the last year of his life -- most often on the deck of his modest home overlooking Lake Champlain in Cedar Beach, Vermont. On an impromptu basis, I'd call Lyman to ask if he had plans for lunch. If not, I'd offer to bring the sandwiches if he would supply the drinks, and somehow, after the first few meetings, it was just assumed that tuna was the order of the day.

In our conversations, we covered a broad range of topics, from the problems of world population growth (a lifelong interest of his) to sustainable agriculture and the impact of media on contemporary society. The clarity of his thought and his love of new ideas gave no hint of his 86 years of experience.

Given the scope of Lyman's accomplishments, it seems almost presumptuous of me to describe him in just a few paragraphs. He, of course, would be the first to attribute his success to the ingenuity of those who worked with him -- a refreshing sense of humility rarely found in CEOs today. Lyman was a wonderful combination of philosopher, preacher, environmentalist, entrepreneur, mail-order marketing legend, and, always, a missionary for gardening. In his earliest business ventures, he looked for ways to improve the quality of people's lives, giving them not only hope but specific steps to change their direction. His philosophy can be best described as the "garden way of living." The Garden Way company's Statement of Purpose described those who pursued this way of living as follows:

They are finding joys, sound values and satisfactions, as well as demands and disciplines, in this gardening-oriented, more self-reliant, more responsible, less dependent, less wasteful, less materialistic, closer-to-nature, more human, more sharing life which can be called "Garden Way Living."

Now, before you label him a starry-eyed idealist, let me explain that he also built the Garden Way company (manufacturer of the famous Troy-Bilt tiller) from zero to $100 million in sales, all through direct-mail marketing. The idea of selling a $400, 300-pound garden tiller, which was used only 10 to 12 times a year, through the mail was deemed utterly impossible. Lyman made it look easy.

But there was more to his success than just marketing genius. He coined the term that described the Garden Way company as "not-for-profit-only." This term used in the Statement of Purpose meant that the company was not putting profits first but was free to pursue activities that were in its enlightened self-interest and didn't necessarily pay dividends to stockholders. Obviously, this made more than a few stockholders uncomfortable.

The Garden Way company became a crusade. These people were not just selling equipment and tools; they were selling (maybe even preaching) about a way of living. Have a garden, be independent, live out in the country, live a better life -- the Garden Way. In Lyman's words, "Running a crusade means doing right by your community, your employees, your customers, and the environment."

We are proud to state that the National Gardening Association is one of Lyman Wood's offspring. He set a rigorous example for us to follow, and we are dedicated to keeping the spirit of his philosophy alive and flourishing. We continue to see so many examples which demonstrate that the fundamental people-plant relationship called gardening is a catalyst with the potential to improve human life. For us, this is a cause and a crusade.

As with many visionaries, it takes years to fully appreciate the genius of their leadership, and Lyman Wood has given us a rich legacy to carry into the 21st century.

David Els is the former executive director of National Gardening.

Photography by National Gardening Association

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