Category Archives: Landscape Problems

Mulch Installation

Spring is finally here! And you are looking to mulch your planting beds.  Do you do it yourself?  Do you hire the kid down the street?  Or, do you hire a reputable, horticulturally minded landscape firm?  When applied properly, mulch can help maintain soil temperature and conserve water. Additionally, it can help prevent root compaction and reduce lawn mower and string trimmer damage. Organic mulches can also help improve the soil’s physical structure and fertility as it breaks down over time.

But hiring the cheapest company to install could lead to multiple issues.  Besides possibly lacking the best appearance, the biggest problem with incorrect mulch installation is volcanoes around tree rings.  Mulch volcanos are unsightly and the excessive mulch on the trunk causes moisture to build up, creating ideal conditions for insect pests, diseases and decay.  If more than four inches of mulch is used, it can end up repelling water and thick layers of mulch can also prevent air from reaching the roots, suffocating the plant. The decline tends to happen slowly over time, but it is inevitable. The proper way to mulch around a tree appears more like a doughnut with mulch 3 to 6 inches away from the trunk. The depth of the ring should be two to four inches max.

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Also too much mulch can be used if a landscaping crew is not measuring the current amount of mulch in a bed before applying more. It is natural for customers to want to have a fresh look and beds can lose some of their color in the sun.  “Those that decompose faster must be replenished more often,” says Martha Smith, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. “Here lies the problem, some mulches, such as cypress mulch, remain intact for years but they turn a grey-tan color. People prefer the ‘fresh’ look of new mulch and top dress annually, not considering the existing mulch depth.”

At Thoms Bros, we believe our highly trained staff jobs separate us from most companies in the following ways:

1. Bed Edging – next to existing, permanent edging such as steel, aluminum and plastic edging, Thoms Bros. pulls away old mulch and dirt so we can install new fresh mulch up to the edging without it running over.  We do the same thing along hard surfaces such as concrete and brick pavers. With a natural edge, Thoms Bros. uses a 5” deep edger blade with its bed edger to give a deep cut.  Then we fine rake just enough mulch into the trench to prevent weeds but still give the defined look.


2. Prepping – Thoms Bros. cleans out debris out of beds and makes sure existing weeds are eradicated.  This would either be completed by physically removing and or using a post-emergent herbicide.


3. Distribution – Thoms Bros. makes sure the correct depth of mulch is installed.  On average a four-inch depth is recommended in most situations.  Depending on frequency and types of mulch used, could mean a one to four-inch installation of mulch.  The team member using a hard rake makes sure depth is correct and guides other team members in locating piles.


4. Tree Rings – Mulch depth and distribution is extremely important as mentioned earlier in this article.  If necessary, Thoms Bros. will remove existing mulch as to prevent depth to be at the desired level.  Mulch is distributed in away as not to go above the tree crown.

5. Fine Tuning – Following the team member responsible for distribution, another team member will use a metal tine leaf rake to make sure mulch is spread nicely leaving no humps.  They will also make sure bed edges to finished to perfection.  They will also hand rake around perennials and other sensitive plant material.  Hand distribution will take place around ground cover that is not established..

6. Clean-up – Thoms Bros. removes mulch from turf areas and makes sure any pavement is clear of mulch and debris residue.  If we are using a colored mulch, we will try to avoid using driveway surfaces, but if not possible, the driveway will be pressure washed.

Mulch Choice

Speaking of organic mulch, another challenge can be choosing the proper mulch material for the job. There are many materials to choose from when it comes to organics including hardwood chips, shredded bark, shredded leaves and pine straw. Organic mulch tends to be preferred over inorganic mulches as they do break down over time and add organic matter to the soil.

Inorganic material such as lava rock, pebbles or rubber mulch are all options and don’t break down over time so they don’t have to be replaced but they also don’t provide any nutrients to the soil.

Finely textured organic mulches tend to decompose more quickly than coarse material. Long-term use of the same type of mulch can change surface soil pH levels. Mulches like pine straw can cause the soil surface to increase in acidity while hardwood bark mulch can cause surface soil to become too alkaline. Inorganic mulches like limestone gravel can also change the pH and can kill acid-loving plants.

Some of the most common types of organic mulches are:

1. Double Processed Hardwood Mulch – is the best for those plants. It decomposes into a rich, sweet-smelling black dirt, and it looks ever so tidy while doing it. Plus, hardwood bark mulch is the best for amending your soil.  This is our most common used mulch as it is very economical, natural looking and gives the best results.  It is dark in color and fine in texture.


2. Cedar Mulch – Cedar oil is a natural insect repellant. That same fragrant aroma that keeps moths and pests out of your cedar chest or closet, works to keep pests away from your plants when you mulch with cedar. In areas where termites are a problem, that particular characteristic makes it worth paying the higher cost for cedar mulch. However, this type of mulch does have its downsides. It decomposes very slowly, adding only trace amounts of nutrients back to your soil. On the other hand, this does mean that cedar mulch is quite long lasting.


3. Cypress Mulch – like cedar, is a natural insect repellent. It’s a good pest repellent, but it’s more expensive than other mulches perhaps due to its attractive blonde color. In addition, the process of harvesting cypress trees can cause untold environmental damage.

4. Pine Bark Mulch is a fine ground of Pine Tree bark. It is known to be a great soil conditioner and does a great job at retarding weed growth. The aroma of Pine Bark Mulch will immediately make you think that you have escaped to Northern Michigan!

5. Colored Enhanced Mulch (black, brown, gold & other selections) gives a cleaner, more uniform look to extensive mulching. Colored mulch comes in red and black and some specialty colors. It’s more expensive than non-colored mulch and the dyes fade in the sun, or fade unevenly, eventually ruining the appearance. The dye is environmentally safe and non-toxic, but can transfer to your hands when you spread the mulch.


6. The Certified Playground Mulch / Engineered Wood Fiber that has been certified for safe use on playgrounds and under and around playscapes.  The mulch has passed impaction, compaction, and wheelchair accessibility tests, meeting or exceeding the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).


MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE: Choosing A Landscape Contractor

You have made the decision to get help with your yard.  So how do you decide who to hire?  There are so many landscapers, gardeners, designers, lawn cutters, full service companies, etc. out there.  First, you need to determine your needs before even looking for or considering anybody.  Are you looking for somebody to maintain what you already have, somebody to guide you in what to do, or somebody to completely install something new or renovate what you currently have?  In these good times, many contractors will claim to do everything and anything just to sell work.  But not all aspects of landscapes are the same and, therefore require different skill levels, knowledge and expertise.

To manage what you already have will require the services of a maintenance contractor.  This can be as simple as a neighborhood kid to pull weeds, cut the grass and rake leaves or as involved as retaining the services of a full service maintenance contractor.  Services could include ornamental bed maintenance, turf, tree and shrub chemical applications, water feature care, irrigation work, etc.  If you enjoy cutting grass but dislike cutting back perennials and pulling weeds you might want to hire a professional gardener.  The best match for you all depends on your level of services desired.

If you want your existing landscape reworked, completely renovated, or have a new home construction, you will need the services of a landscape designer.  This can either be from an independent designer or a designer associated with an installation company.  A professional designer will incorporate your visions and priorities in conjunction with your property’s strengths and weaknesses into a creative plan that can be implemented in full or over a period of time.  This plan can either be installed by you as the homeowner or hired out to a professional landscape construction company.

Now that you have determined your needs and what type of landscaper you are looking for, how do you select the right person or firm?  There are many deciding factors in determining who will meet your needs and give you the best value, and one of the biggest factors is certification. There are many certifications available to green industry professionals and here is a list:

  • Certified Green Industry Professional (CGIP) – This program is offered by the Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association (MNLA).  CGIP certification is earned by individuals taking a very in-depth four hour exam on horticulture and other related information geared towards specialties including:  landscape contractor, designer, and manager.  Learn more at


  • APLD Certified Landscape Designer –This program is offered by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD).  The certification is earned by submitting work which is then evaluated by professional peers.  Learn more at

APLD certified

  • ISA Certified Arborist  – This program is offered by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). This certification was developed for professional arborists in order to provide the public and those in government with a means to identify those professionals who have demonstrated, through a professionally developed exam and education program, that they have a thorough knowledge of tree care practices. Learn more at
  • ICPI Certified Concrete Paver Installer.  This program is offered by the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI).  There are currently two levels of certification with the first level incorporating classroom hours and an exam for basic brick paver installation knowledge and the second level aimed at more advanced brick paver knowledge.  Learn more at


  • Certified SRW Installer (CSRWI) – This program is offered by the National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA).  There are currently two levels of this certification on how to install segmental retaining walls; a basic course with an exam and an advanced course with an exam.   Learn more at
  • Landscape Industry Certified (LIC) – This program is offered by PLANET, an international landscape organization.  Learn more at  PLANET has several subcategories of the LIC:
    • Certified Landscape Professional (CLP) – The exam is a 4-hour multiple choice test covering business management topics.
    • Certified Landscape Technician (CLT) – The exam is a written and hands-on test. Candidates choose to test in Hardscape Installation, Softscape Installation, Turf Maintenance, Ornamental Maintenance or Irrigation.
    • Certified Horticultural Technician (COLP) – This course emphasizes tree and shrub maintenance procedures. Candidates concentrate on landscape trees and ornamental woody plant physiology, health care management, and establishment.
    • Certified Lawn Care Manager (CTP) – This study material covers the essential knowledge needed by an effective turf grass manager in northern growing zones. The study leads to a mastery of weed, insect and disease identification/control, as well as diagnosis of common turf grass problems. The material supports Integrated Pest Management concepts, pesticide safety and customer relations in northern climates.


Landscape individuals and companies can sometimes be required by the state to have a license depending on the work being completed.  All individuals and companies must have a license to apply pesticides for hire.  Pesticides are used to control weeds, insects, and diseases in lawns, in planting beds, and on trees and shrubs.  Make sure when hiring a company to complete this type of work that both the company and the technician are licensed by the State of Michigan.  Although the state and most municipalities do not require a builder’s license for most work that landscape contractors do, please check with your local building inspector to find out requirements.  At the current time, there are no statewide license requirements of landscape and irrigation contractors other than what is listed above.

Although certifications and licenses are important to look for when hiring a green industry professional, they are definitely not the only thing.  Years of business experience can sometimes be helpful in making a decision to hire a company, but references from people you know are much more beneficial.  Sometimes a company might have a 30 year history but might have been recently taken over by a descendant or new owner.  If a friend, neighbor or co-worker can verify the quality of work and customer service this will be much more helpful in your decision making.  Also, actually look at the work that they performed.  Is this the type of work that you are looking for?  Does it meet your expectations?  People have varying degrees of quality requirements.  Your neighbor might have enjoyed working with a particular company and can overlook that lines are not quite straight, or the quality of plant materials is questionable, or the grades are wrong.  If these issues are important to you, continue looking for someone that will meet your specifications.  Another great idea is to evaluate the landscapes at various stages, particularly those that have been installed for a number of years.  Has the landscape held up?  Does the contractor offer warranties for plant material, hardscaping construction, etc?  If the contractor does offer a warranty, how long is the warranty for?  Do they have a history in honoring their warranties?

Another major factor in determining who to choose for your garden needs is getting to know the salesperson or owner of the company.  Having a good relationship is key.  If you are not comfortable or do not trust this person, then it is apparent that you should move on.  For smaller jobs deciding who to use can be relatively uncomplicated.  If you have a costly job, are concerned about the health of a 100 year old oak tree, or are planning for a landscape that will be with you for many  years, you should be very cautious who you hire.

In summary, once you have determined what level of service you are looking for consider the following factors in making the right choice for hiring a landscape contractor:  certifications, licenses, referrals, quality of work, and relationship.  These factors will help ensure that your landscape expectations are met.

Drought of 2018

During these dog days summer, your lawn needs water now more than ever. Without a sufficient amount of rainfall, these hot weather conditions can be a killer for your lawn and garden. You may find yourself working harder this season to keep your grass lush and green. Keeping your lawn hydrated is very important, so here are a few tips to help you water your lawn and keep it healthy all season long.


Watering Tip #1 – Water your lawn before the heat kicks in. This way water is less likely to evaporate before it reaches the roots of your grass. It’s not a necessity, but it is recommended to water your grass earlier in the day – ideally before 10:00 am. Another important consideration to make is what time you mow the lawn. Mowing in the morning is better for your grass, but you shouldn’t mow after you water the grass. Wet grass causes clumping and ruts and leaves your lawn vulnerable to certain diseases.


Watering Tip #2 – When watering, you need to water deeply. Water your lawn every 3 to 5 days, but only enough to wet most of the root area. Allow your lawn to dry out between watering. Frequently watering the grass keeps that root area consistently wet, reducing the amount of soil oxygen that is available to the roots and inviting fungi that can cause lawn diseases.  Different types of sprinklers put down different amounts of water.  Spray heads (which are the smaller heads) that stay in one position put a greater amount of water down.  These zones are usually set for 10-15 minutes.  Oscillating or gear driven heads put down less water since they have to move.  These zones are usually set for 20-25 minutes.

Watering Tip #3 – Look for signs of drought. While you shouldn’t water your lawn too frequently, you shouldn’t go too long without watering it either so look for signs of drought. Sometimes the grass leaf doesn’t have enough water to bounce back after foot traffic and just lies over. Look back on an area that you have walked on. If you still see the footprints, this is an early sign of drought stress, and you need to water your grass.

Also, consider the color of the grass. A purple-blue color often indicates drought stress. Before the grass turns brown from lack of water, it fades to a purple-blue color. If you see these colors, it’s time to water your lawn.


Watering Tip #4 – Adjust your sprinkler system. Be mindful of the weather – rainfall, hot temperatures, etc. – and adjust your sprinkler system accordingly. Avoid setting it at the beginning of the season and forgetting about it. Another thing to consider is adjusting your sprinkler pressure to water with large droplets, which are less likely to be blown by the wind and more likely to fall and penetrate through the soil.  Most lawns right now need the system running every day.  Zones that are in full sun will obviously need more water than zones in the shade.  At my house, my front yard faces the south.  I need to run the zone along the hot asphalt street more than ever now to keep green.  My backyard, which faces the North has ample shade so it does not need as much.


Watering Tip #5 – Set a schedule. Choose to water either in the early morning or evening to minimize water lost to evaporation. If your lawn is subject to fungi, water in the early morning to allow excess moisture to evaporate.

The hot, humid weather that comes with the spring and summer seasons is not always kind to our lawns. With consistent care, regular watering and these tips, you’ll be able to keep the lawn cool and healthy.

Many of our clients are frankly just too busy to properly adjust their sprinkler system throughout the season.  Unless we have access and can change ourselves or we communicate it to our clients to adjust themselves it just doesn’t happen.  During droughts like this we get calls from clients asking why their lawn is “dyeing”.  The irrigation contractor turns on the system in the spring and that is where it stays throughout the season.  Many years, sprinklers are not even needed until late June or early July.  We get plentiful of rain in April, May and usually June to keep the lawn and plants healthy.  This year has started early and most of all lawns in the area are stressed out.  Even though turf is very resilient, coming back from the yellow of yellowest looking we want it to face the least amount of stress as possible.  We have been installing smart Wi-Fi irrigation controllers on our new systems as well as encouraging clients to upgrade their older systems to the Hunter Hydrawise System.  This type of irrigation controller saves water during moist conditions and keeps your lawn looking great during these droughts.  You can control it with a smart device from your backyard or couch and you can even allow us to control the system to keep your landscaping looking the best as possible.  Please call us if interested in upgrading.


Blue Spruce Problems

Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) is one of the most recognizable and widely planted conifers in Michigan landscape.   Unfortunately, blue spruces have been encountering some seriously health-threatening problems in recent years.   Most of the problems are from disease are killing branches and eventually the entire tree.  Industry experts are calling this “Spruce Decline”.   This epidemic has caused many to believe that the blue spruce will become extinct. 

There are a variety of factors that may contribute to Spruce Decline.  It is believed that there are two reasons for this problem.  First, we have overplanted blue spruce, just as we do with most popular plants.  Do you remember the Dutch Elm Disease and the very recent Emerald Ash Borer?  Overplanting often leads to buildup disease and pests with so much food and survival potential for these causal factors.  Second, we have taken a tree that is “native” to the slopes (well drained, perhaps even droughty, nutrient poor) of the Rocky Mountains to clayish, poorly drained soils of Michigan.  Other species of spruce (Norway, white, black, Serbian, etc.) may contract some of these problems as well…even though they are generally not nearly as seriously affected as blue spruce.   Here at Thoms Bros. we are not recommending to plant Colorado Spruce, but use Norway and other Spruces more than not. 

The biggest problem of this “Decline” are the Canker Diseases.  Caused by fungi, the most common are Phomopsis, Cytospora and Diplodia.  But other issues include Needlecast Disease, Pitch Mass Borer, Cooley Spruce Gall and Cultural/Environmental Problems. 

Managing these issues is very complex.  The biggest solution is to not overplant and when planting to allow adequate spacing to allow air movement.  Using several varieties of spruce , pine, and fir on a jobsite would protect you from a larger problem.  Pesticides can definitely be used to control the disease and pest problems, but the key to solution is recognizing the problem early enough.  Many clients come to us after the plants have declined to much and are beyond salvageable.  If you have Blue Spruces on your property, have our Arborculturist (from our key partner, GreenTrees) put you on a program.

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Crazy Weather and Our Plants

So how much small talk have your heard in the last several months that included?: “Long Winter”, “Crazy Weather”, “Cannot wait until spring”, You Think Winter is Finally Done?”, etc.  Here at Thoms Bros. we officially started our season on April 7, a week later than usual.  In the last two weeks we have seen temperatures into the 70’s and on tax day 2014, we officially did it!  We broke a 150 year record for snowfall in a season.


So April 15 was another day our crews could not work in the field.  Whether it is snow or rain, we assume we will not be able to work six days a week in April.  That just goes with the territory.  But it just proves the old saying, “If you don’t like the weather in Michigan than just wait a minute.”  With Tuesday’s high of 32F we are now expecting seasonable temps for the weekend and above normal temps for early next week.


What will this past winter and the crazy weather do to our plants?  With some plants the damage is quite obvious right now.


Winter burn can be seen on many types of boxwood.  These boxwoods were especially susceptible since they were out in the open and had road salt sprayed on them.  Also, some boxwood are hardier than others.


Winter damage can also be noticed on other evergreens throughout the landscape including yews/taxus.


This is Cephalotaxus harringtonia fastigiata.  It is rated for zones 6 through 9.  Even though we are in zone 6 on average, this past winter was at least a zone 5 for us.  I would not normally plant zone 6 plants, but I received two free from the APLD Conference.  You can see the bottom is still green and the top was green like this at the end of February.  We started losing some of our snow cover in March and the top got exposed resulting in the yellowing.  We will see how it recovers.


Obviously evergreen damage is quite visible this early in the spring, but how about our deciduous plants and perennials.  This Carpet Rose in a grouping of 8 has very little green in the stems.  I would assume you will never notice the winter damage in later summer, but cutting back the brown stems right to the ground will need to be done here very soon.  Usually most stems in roses will stay green throughout the winter, but this was not a “usual” winter.


On April 12, many locations in Metro Detroit received heavy hail.  Hail will not usually do any damage to plants.


The next day on April 13, a storm that produced shear winds went through the area.  Many large, older evergreens can be seen on their sides. 


This 200+ year old oak had severe heartwood rot and the cambium (outer, growing part of the trunk) was the only thing keeping this majestic tree upright.

Now that we are FINALLY done with winter (I think), let’s hope most of our plants recover and we can enjoy a beautiful spring and summer.

What’s Wrong with My Spruce Trees?

For about 10 years, spruce trees have had a tough time in Michigan due to pest, diseases, over-planting and weather.  Diseases with spruce are nothing new.  Cytospora Canker is manifested by the dying of the lower branches accompanied by dropping of the needles.  The disease is very destructive on the blue spruce.  But a recent survey in southern Michigan by Dr. Dennis Fullbright (MSU Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Science) has discovered that this disease is not as prevalent as in the past.  A new disease, Phomopsis Blight, has shown its ugly head on one of Southeast Michigan’s favorite conifer (i.e. Christmas tree or evergreen tree).  This disease as described in an article in the magazine The Michigan Landscape works much faster than the Cytospora Canker.

So what can we do to stop or prevent this disease?  The future does not look very bright for infected plants.  Fungicide and pruning can help, but dead branches will not grow again.  If you do not catch the disease soon enough, much of the lower branches of the plant will be gone.  Bad news if the plant is used for privacy.  A fungicide, Cleary 3336, can be used to prevent the disease.  But this needs to be applied several times while the shoots of the plant are growing the spring.  This could be a very expensive endeavor.

As with the Elm Dutch Disease epidemic in Detroit in the 50’s and most recently the Emerald Ash Borer, diversification is key to slowing down insect and disease issues in our landscape.  Colorado Blue Spruces have been planted heavy in the last 30 or so years.  They are loved for their color, availability in the market and tolerant of our heavy soils here in Southeast Michigan.  We should consider using and actually make it a point to plant other types of conifers.  Please check out this extension handout by MSU.  As a landscape contractor and designer, I will do my best in educating my clients on other choices.

This tree Colorado Spruce (Picea pungens) is in a row with four other Colorado’s and one Norway Spruce.  The plant declined extremely rapidly this year and before I knew it lost a big gap of needles in the lower third of the plant.  I have been treating all of the plants with herbicides and will deep root fertilize them this Fall, but will eventually replace at least this plant with another species of conifer.  These trees provide privacy for my backyard and block road noise from the entrance of the subdivision.