Rock ‘n’ roll farmer: music man Mike Sullivan tends his (big) garden

Mike Sullivan has an impressive garden of vegetables, fruits and flowers behind his home in Dunwoody. The zinnias attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Jenni Girtman/For The AJC

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

DeKalb man grows personal garden nearly half the size of a football field.

So, have you been digging in the dirt, working in your gardens to cope with stress from the looming pandemic — and 2020 in general?

Mike Sullivan is way ahead of you. The Dunwoody music businessman has the equivalent of a small farm in his back yard.

His lower 40 consists of 25,000 square feet of flowers and vegetables, or twice the size of the Unity Garden at nearby Chattahoochee Nature Center.

A few years ago, he had 35,000 square feet in cultivation, with an 80-foot row of asparagus and tomatoes out the wazoo. That was back when three children lived at home and he had help.

Still, Sullivan, 75, and his wife, Leslie, canned 95 quarts of tomatoes this year; some of those tomatoes went to make four gallons of spaghetti sauce. They also froze six gallons of blackberries.

“There’s nothing like going outside and picking your own supper,” said Sullivan on a recent overcast day, as he thumped one of the 50 watermelons on the sloping bed behind his yellow-brick ranch house off Happy Hollow Road.

Up above are high voltage wires, strung between the transmission towers that march off to the east and west like giant Erector Set robots.

The right-of-way under those power lines is sheared clean of trees by Georgia Power, creating a swath of open land behind Sullivan’s house that’s 75 feet wide and more than a mile long.

The ELF radiation there will make a fluorescent bulb light up, but the sunlight is awesome for crops. Since 1973 Sullivan has been planting the right-of-way behind his house with blackberries, raspberries, melons, zucchini, tarragon, rosemary, figs, corn — a cornucopia of edibles and flowers that would make Adam and Eve feel right at home.

Sullivan's watermelon patch is ready for harvest. The remaining melons will be taken to the food bank and donated. Jenni Girtman/For The AJC

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

His biggest problem some years has been distributing the bounty. He takes truckloads of watermelons to group homes, brings quarts of berries to his neighbors, provides vegetables for food banks and flowers for churches.

But harvesting has become a challenge. This is why he’s cut down on the size of his garden and replaced some of the vegetable beds with canna lilies, Mexican petunias, cosmos and zinnias.

What’s interesting about Michael Sullivan is that while he dons his overalls and gets back to the land on nights and weekends, he lives a rock 'n' roll life at his day job.

Michael and Leslie Sullivan, sweethearts since they were in high school in Chicago, moved to Atlanta in 1973. He arrived to serve as a senior vice president for Capitol Records in its Atlanta regional offices, just as Southern rock began to boom. “Atlanta took off,” he says.

Then Sullivan was talked into joining a fledgling label by Atlanta-based music industry attorney and powerhouse Joel Katz. They signed a singer-songwriter to the Kat Family record label, after hearing him play during happy hour at the Tony Roma’s restaurant on Roswell Road.

That performer, Bertie Higgins, gave the label its first hit with “Key Largo” (“We had it all, just like Bogey and Bacall.” Top 10 in the U.S., No. 1 in Japan.)

Sullivan has slowed down a bit but still does some entertainment projects. His music industry friends have long been amused that behind the hitmaker’s public persona is a personality more at home on Max Yasgur’s farm.

It’s difficult to say which job he worked at harder. Coaxing melons and squash out of the barren red clay of DeKalb County isn’t easy. The unyielding ground broke shovels.

Sullivan had to split the soil with a pickaxe, then amend it with horse manure, wood chips, household putrescibles, yard trimmings and river sand.

“It almost killed me,” he said.

Among the exotic fruit growing behind Mike Sullivan's home in Dunwoody is this pomegranate. Jenni Girtman/For The AJC

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

At the end of the day, he’d collapse on the patio while his wife would wonder why he insisted on backyard farming at such a scale.

She admits that canning all those tomatoes (they have to be skinned and boiled first) “is a pain in the (behind) to be quite honest with you.”

But she appreciates the essentially conservative virtue of growing your own and creating plenty, for her family and many others. She loves making tomato basil soup in the wintertime from their vegetable storehouse. “It’s good, healthy food,” she says. “There is nothing like going out in the back yard and picking corn and eating it right after it’s picked.”

Today Mike is putting in his winter crop of lettuce, radishes and beets. Then he will begin dreaming of spring.