A Look Back – MNLA/MSU/APLD-MI Annual Landscape Design Tour 2014

by Steven D. Thoms, APLD, CLP, CGIP

What a crazy year 2014 was! It has gone from my worst year in business (2011) to my best year in business in three short years.  Talk about pent up demand!  The one thing bad about a prosperous year is that I wasn’t able to write like I was planning.

August 20, 2014 was the annual Michigan Nursery & Landscape Association (MNLA), Michigan State University (MSU) and Association of Professional Landscape Designers Michigan Chapter (APLD-MI) Landscape Design Tour. This past year’s tour took us to the Saginaw Valley area of Michigan.  And, it did not disappoint!  The tour included seven private home landscapes, a tour of Blue Thumb Distributing facilities, a bonus stop at the Dahlia Hill and ending up at Dow Gardens for a dinner reception.  This year’s event was sponsored by Michigan Horticulture Industries Worker’s Compensation Fund, Blue Thumb Distributing, Inc., and Unilock.

As difficult as it might seem to break away from work to attend tours and/or education events, it is much needed. Socializing with fellow landscapers and getting inspired by beautiful gardens definitely help me make it over the hump for the season.


Our first stop was a less glorious landscape just on the outskirts of Saginaw Township, but was very educational. This site was not about what you saw but about planning and preparation of some difficult conditions.  This residence had bad drainage issues.  The designer talked about the permeable pavers, drainage around the pool and foundation of house, and all that was needed to make this property functional.  Sometimes as designers we want to avoid problems like this because it is not visual, but we do need to remember that our work needs to be functional as well.


It always fascinates me to hear how people change their mind.  Our next stop was a koi/specimen plant lover’s dream.  The large house right next door to our first stop was sprinkled with specimen plants from Larix decidus ‘Pendula Prostrate Form’ to Ginkgo biloba ‘Pendula’ to everything in between.  But the real showcase of this landscape was the water features in the backyard.  The original backyard included a small pondless waterfall.  The client did NOT want fish or the upkeep of a pond.  After receiving a koi as a gift, the client did a 180 degree turn.  They wanted a koi pond and water gardener’s dream.


This bog with its grandeur Lotus plants helps keep the main pond area clear.  This lower pond was five feet deep with minimal plants and rocks.  It housed the two dozen large exotic koi that the client had to grown to love like family.  She even had a tank in her basement to transition new fish into the pond and to also use as a hospital when a fish got sick.  Her favorite fish was black and yellow colored with the longest lashes.  It ate food out of her hand.


From the sounds of it, I believe it was everyone’s favorite stop.


Our next stop was definitely a plant collector’s garden.


It included many great plants and a very intense water filtration system. The homeowners designed, installed and maintained their landscape themselves.  It had won several awards.


We then stopped and had lunch at one of the tour’s sponsors, Blue Thumb Distributing. I was excited for this stop because they had just purchased a company that I had used on many jobs, Aqua Bella Designs.  It was great to see all their products, many in functional displays and to also hear about their business procedures.


The next site was a charming historical home in Bay City. It was interesting hearing from the landscape architect on the whole landscape procedure of designing and satisfying the historical committee on this 100+ year old house.


Our next three locations included tranquil water features, quaint gardens and lovely plant combinations.



Our bonus site was Dahlia Hill in Midland. This highest point in Midland was started by artist Charles Breed, financially supported by private companies and foundations, and maintained by over fifty volunteers.


The terraces were created by the use of 300 tons of Bay de noc Limestone from the upper peninsula.

With over 250 varieites in the 3,000 dahlia plants in this open-to-the public garden, it is a sight to see. To learn more, please visit http://www.dahliahill.org.

IMG_3130aThe evening ended with great food, drink and company at the restored barn at the wonderful 110 acre Dow Gardens in Midland.

Mitchell Thoms

Mitchell Thoms started working with Thoms Bros. at an early age 6 years ago.  His career in the Green Industry started out just as a “job” to make spending money.  His original goal after high school was to go into the biomedical field.  After several semesters, he decided to follow his passion and stay in the family business.  


In the fall of 2012, Mitchell entered into the landscape horticulture program at Oakland Community College in Auburn Hills.  In the spring of 2014, he earned his Associates in Applied Science from O.C.C.  He plans on attending Walsh College in the future for his Bachelors in Business Administration.


Mitchell’s talents and responsibilities at Thoms Bros are vast.  He leads shrub trimming and small landscape installation crews; operates excavators, skid loaders and other equipment; takes on a huge role with larger install crews on big jobs; and, is the lead person on Thoms Bros’ new venture, StoneMakers.


Mitchell has been involved in several training events for StoneMakers; traveling to New Hampshire and Florida.  In the Winter of 2015, Mitchell earned is Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI) Certification for Concrete Paver Installation.  His other goals include earning his Certified Green Industry Professional (from MNLA) and Landscape Industry Certified Technician (from PLANET) recognitions in the near future as well as attaining his CDL.


Mixing in StoneMakers wall builder into truck

Shelby Township01a

Pouring concrete wall sign for Shelby Township

SEMNLA President


Steven D. Thoms, CGIP, APLD, CLP, Vice President and Chief Designer, was announced on January 27, 2015 at Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association’s annual Great Lakes Trade Expo as SEMNLA’s next President.  The Southeast Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association (SEMNLA) Chapter was established as a Federated Chapter of the MNLA.  The SEMNLA Chapter serves the counties of Lenawee, Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw and Wayne.  SEMNLA’s Mission Statement is to “Serve the regional educational, professional and networking needs of Southeast Michigan’s nursery and landscape industry.  To learn more about SEMNLA please visit www.semnla.org.





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.

Patio Surfaces

So you are thinking about adding or renovating a patio.  There are many different types of surfaces to choose from.  A patio can be a very large investment with prices from $2000 (standard size/shape concrete patio) to more than $40,000 (raised wet laid natural stone patio).  So choosing the right surface can be very daunting. 

Pros/Cons of Patio Flooring

Natural Stone (i.e. Bluestone) (on concrete base w/mortared joints)


  • Natural stone is a very durable and versatile building material, due to its hard and dense composition.
  • Natural stone is safe to use around the pool, for they have a non-slip finish to them.
  • Natural stone will add natural beauty to your property, giving it that classical, ‘ancient’ aesthetic appeal!
  • Because natural stone is available in so many different colors, there is bound to be the right color to match any of your existing materials.
  • Natural stone can be very long living, if proper installation of concrete sub-base is completed.
  • Same material can be used for pool coping


  • Natural stone is very expensive to install in this manor (generally $30 – $45 per square foot installed)
  • If proper drainage and/or compaction is not provided when concrete sub-base is installed, then heaving and cracking could occur damaging surface of paved area
  • Batah16Batah18

Natural Stone (gravel base w/sand joints)


  • Natural stone is a very durable and versatile building material, due to its hard and dense composition.
  • Natural stone will add natural beauty to your property, giving it that classical, ‘ancient’ aesthetic appeal!
  • Because natural stone is available in so many different colors, there is bound to be the right color to match any of your existing materials.
  • Same material can be used for pool coping
  • Much more less expensive to install then on concrete base (generally $15 – $20 per square foot installed)


  • Extremely high maintenance especially in pool configuration, joints will encourage weeds & ants.
  • Freeze/frost conditions can damage very easily, making longetivity very short

Interlocking Concrete Brick Pavers


  • Wide range of surface finishes, colors, and styles to meet any architectural style of home.
  • Moderate cost for installation (generally $10 – $20 per square foot installed)
  • For long lasting, Thoms Bros. offers lifetime warranty on installations.
  • Low maintenance, stained or broken pavers & sunken or heaved areas can be fixed relatively easily.


  • Areas could sink easily if base is not properly compacted or washes away between boulders
  • Weeds in cracks could be issue if polymeric sand and/or sealant is not usedIMG_0009Patio28

StoneMakers Flatwork Concrete


  • Custom colors to give real stone look
  • Moderate cost for installation (generally $10 – $16 per square foot installed)
  • Expansion joints are disguised in joints of individual stones
  • Color is both mixed in with concrete and surface applied.
  • Cracks can be disguised with new stone joints


  • Must be sealed on regular basis (depending on quality of sealer) or surface damage will occur and color will fade.
  • Concrete will eventually crackIMG_0519HPIM1565

Stamped Concrete


  • Descent range of surface stamps & colors.
  • Moderate cost for installation (generally $8 – $14 per square foot installed)


  • Must be sealed on regular basis (depending on quality of sealer) or surface damage will occur and color will fade.
  • Pattern of stamp can be ruined by saw cuts
  • Repairs will stand out because matching color and stamps after the fact is almost impossible
  • Concrete will eventually crack
  • Many installers only surface apply powdered color.

Exposed Aggregate Concrete


  • Better looking than standard concrete
  • Lost cost for installation (generally $4 – $6 per square foot installed)


  • Must be sealed on regular basis (depending on quality of sealer) or aggregate will pop.
  • Less attractive alternative to above
  • Repairs will stand out because matching color is almost impossible
  • Concrete will eventually crack

Standard Concrete


  • Extremely Low cost for installation (generally $3 – $5 per square foot installed)


  • Least attractive alternative to above
  • Repairs will stand out because matching color is almost impossible
  • Concrete will eventually crack



Wow! What a Winter!

IMG_1850IMG_1836At Thoms Bros., we have been plowing snow for over 23 seasons.  We have seen all kinds of winters.  In those 23 seasons, we have seen three of the top 20 least snowy seasons of all time.  The 1997/1998 season was the 15th least snowiest at 23.4”.  The 1999/2000 season was the 16th least snowiest at 23.7”.  And, the 2003/2004 was the 18th least snowiest at 24.1”.  On the other end, we have worked in six of the top 20 snowiest seasons of all time:

  • 2002/2003 is the 15th at 60.9”
  • 2004/2005 is the 11th at 63.8”
  • 2008/2009 is the 10th at 65.7”
  • 2010/2011 is the 6th at 69.1”
  • 2007/2008 is the 5th at 71.7”
  • 2013/2014 is current the 2nd at 90.7”

We are currently only 1.9 inches short of the all time record of 93.6” set during the winter of 1880-1881.  The metro area, however, has set a new record when it comes to snow cover with 77 consecutive days of snow of 1 inch or more.  The old record was 73 days set in the winter of 1958.  With this 90.7” of snow this season, we plowed out our clients almost 20 times.  An average number of plows over the last 23 seasons is nine.  We also salted our jobs close to 30 times.  On many of our sites, we complete ran out of room to push snow.  We had to either load and haul snow, or blow snow with our industrial snow blower. 

This current winter season – even though it is officially Spring now, we are still not out of the woods from getting snow – not only brought tons of snow, but C—O—L—D! 

  • Detroit’s average winter temperature this season (20.9) marked the coldest winter since 1977-78 and the eighth coldest all-time (18.8 in 1903-04 is the coldest).
  • Detroit’s 13 days of below-zero temperatures this winter are the most days below-zero since there were 15 during the 1983-84 season. The current mark ties for seventh all-time; the record is 21 below-zero days during the 1884-85 season. The average below-zero days in a season for Metro Detroit is 3.6.
  • Detroit’s 76 days of 32 degrees or lower (below freezing) are the most below freezing days for the region since 78 during the 1977-78 season. The current mark is tied for fourth all-time. The record for below freezing days in the region is 86 during the 1880-81 season. The average number of days freezing or below freezing for the region is 49.

March 21 is officially the first day of Spring, but when will Spring actually get here?  Doesn’t look like anytime soon.  The ten day forecast has only three days of normal or slightly above normal temperatures.  The remaining seven days are below and even greatly below average.  Are average snowfall for April is 1.7” and the snowiest April of all time was set back in 1886 at 25.7”.  We’ll quit if that happens……..Not really but we won’t like it!

It is hard to believe that just two short years ago we had the all time warmest March.   On March 22, 2012, an unprecedented spring heat wave, and quite possibly the most anomalous weather event in over 130 years of record-keeping in Michigan, came to a close. The high temperature of 86 was the warmest March temperature ever in Detroit, beating by two degrees the record of 84 degrees set the day before.  Altogether, SE Michigan shattered all significant records for March warmth. Detroit set 6 records in 8 days, including tying or breaking the monthly record twice.  The heat wave also included 10 consecutive days (March 14-23) of 70 degrees or higher in Detroit. This has never happened in March. In fact, it has never even happened in April. The closest competition is a span of 9 days late in the month of April over 125 years ago, in 1886.

Now we are not wishing for a record breaking heat wave in March or even April.  That year did significant damage to plants with the early budding than an April frost. But we do wish for average temperatures.  Our average start date for the Spring is the first week of April.  My guess would be this year will not be average.  See you out in the landscapes once we can.

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.

Less Than a Week Away

Less Than a Week Away

The 2013 APLD International Design Conference – Detroit, MI

For over two years now, I have been chairing the Local Site Committee for The Association of Professional Landscape Designer’s annual conference to be held at the GM RenCen on August 2 – 5, 2013.   It has been a lot of work, but we are in the home stretch with less than a week away.  Many of my close friends and colleagues have wondered why I would take on such a large commitment.  It also has been very difficult getting APLD-Michigan members to buy into and volunteer.  Even though I have spent a lot of time on this event, probably neglected my family and business a little as a result, it was definitely still worth it.  Being the chair was not about the time and effort I put into the conference, but about the leadership skills, positive attitude and business relations that I developed.

It is one thing to lead your kids who usually love you and need you.  And then there is leading a company.  Motivating employees can be difficult, but they need you and the pay you provide to support their family.  Your leadership skills are really tested when you are asking volunteers to take time away from family, work and leisure time.  I definitely have not been Gandhi during these past few years, but I have learned.  I can look back and see my mistakes and how I will change my action in the future.

I have always dealt with confidence and negative attitude issues throughout my life.  But from the initial possibility of Detroit as a location, through the bankruptcy and mayor news, and until now the last push to complete the small tasks, I have always kept a “Can Do” attitude.  I would definitely like to thank Mildred Hurley, the LSC Tour Captain, for helping me out in this.  She radiates with positivity! Especially about Detroit, Southeast Michigan and our State.  Funny thing because she is originally from North Carolina still carrying the Southern draw after over 20 years of relocation.

During this process, I have met and learned so much by the people I have met.  Of course, this group includes my fellow local site committee members, Ellen Johnston (International Program Chair), and Jennifer Cramer (APLD Staff), but also includes designers of the tour gardens, speakers, and other people involved with the conference.  As the program chair, I get to ask questions and see things that most people would not have access to.  Speaking of exclusive access, the LSC is getting a private tour on top of the largest green roof in the WORLD!  The conference garden tours will take us to the Ford Rouge Plant in Dearborn, but attendees will only see the 10.4 acres of green roof from an observation deck.  Discovering this contact has gotten me and the LSC this exciting opportunity to be right in the heart of this amazing sustainable site.

To learn more, please visit www.apld.org.  Stay tuned for exciting pictures and descriptions of the exciting gardens in my next blog.

Steven D. Thoms,  APLD, CGIP, CLP

APLD-Michigan President and Founding Member

2013 International Design Conference LSC Chair


Fire in Your Outdoor Room

05B251B6-8E32-4B06-8D32064DBAFF017A 39102871-671E-45D6-83466666737935D9Stickel12Kotenko20Bennett39Pollock06Fitzsimmons64As the economy continues to gain momentum, homeowners will be adding outdoor kitchens, fire pits and fireplaces for outdoor entertaining in 2013 according to a new survey of leading members of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).  The informal survey conducted in December, identified on the top of the list for homeowners are fire pits and outdoor fireplaces.

Homeowners are requesting landscape architects and designers to design complete outdoor rooms, such as kitchens and bars, for entertaining. Water features such as koi ponds, pools, and fountains continue to be popular.   Steve Martino, FASLA, of Phoenix—recipient of both the ASLA Design Medal and the ASLA Residential Design Award of Excellence in 2006—cites private living spaces, outdoor rooms, and water features as top homeowner requests.

Although we are not blessed with a long warm season like some other areas of the country, enjoying your backyard to its fullest is still of high demand here in Michigan.  We see more and more clients asking for these new trends.  Along with the increase in luxury items for the common person, people are just staying home more.  Rather than go on trips, or go to the local restaurant, people want to entertain family and friends in the comfort of their own home.  And, rather than being confined to the interior of their home, people want to enjoy their yard as well.

Here at Thoms Bros., we are using many products and manufactures to bring these new trends to our customers.  For outdoor kitchens, the high-end line of appliances that we are installing come from Viking (www.vikingrange.com) and Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet (http://kalamazoogourmet.com/).  They both offer a full range of appliances from refrigerators to grills to cabinetry.  They both have a long history of high quality products and are offering the newest of technologies in their products.  We also install more affordable products from Weber (http://www.weber.com/home) and Kitchen Aid (http://www.kitchenaid.com/)

Outdoor kitchens can be created as nice as any indoor kitchen.  Sinks, electricity, and weather protection can make preparing that perfect meal.  The appliances and other necessities for the kitchen can be supported in several different ways.  Manufactured concrete walls, cement block with a stone or stucco face, and even outdoor kitchen cabinetry from Atlantis (www.outdoor-kitchen-cabinets.com/atlantis) can be used.  Countertops are usually done in granite, but other choices like concrete can be utilized.

Extending the patio season later in the fall has become very common with the use of fireplaces, fire pits and other warming devices.  As with interior fireplaces, exterior ones can take on many looks.  These backyard center pieces can be made out of manufactured decorative concrete blocks, stone, and brick.  Exterior fireplaces can also be either natural wood burning or gas.  Fire pits can also be natural wood burning or gas, but are usually more informal of a center piece as compared to a fireplace.  The advantage of a fire pit over a fireplace is the 360° seating and lower cost installation.  The disadvantage of a fire pit is smoke control in a real wood burning application.

Adding one or many of these features will definitely not disappoint and be well worth the money.  We were created to be exterior creatures and incorporating an outdoor kitchen, fireplace, and/or fire pit will draw you, your family and friends outdoors.



Thoms Bros. Introduces Ledge Falls

As an extension of our StoneMakers product line, Thoms Bros. introduces LedgeFalls.  LedgeFalls has patent pending formulas, products and product systems that are unlike anything available on the market today. This is the next generation of water features.  Thoms Bros. can install “Resort Like” water features in yards, next to pools, and in commerical settings at a very fair price. The cost of installing the system in a very short time frame along with the final look provides exceptional value to the customer. Have you seen the grottos and spectacular waterfalls at resorts?  Creating a backyard oasis will bring joy to your family and wow your family, friends and neighbors.   The LedgeFalls system is lightweight. Water features can be placed alongside a swimming pool and eliminate the worry of putting tons and tons of stone to create a dramatic swimming pool waterfall.  The composite panels can be colored to match the natural color of any stone or rock.  The light weight also allows for an overhang of up to four feet.