Jim Thomas opens the door to the office to step outside onto paver stones along a water feature. He pauses to see if his pal wants a bit of sunshine.
“Are you coming, too?” he asks Maui Jim, a fuzzy 10-week-old golden retriever pup in that stage of life where he explores the world predominately with his teeth and tiny tongue.
Maui Jim, named for the sunglasses brand, is the greeter at Thomas Tree & Landscape off of Highway 22 in Mankato. Well, he’s one of the greeters.
On this particular Tuesday morning, the Thomases’ pet squirrel — yup, squirrel — was in its cage bouncing around. But when there aren’t customers afoot, the squirrel gets the run of the place. There are also two other dogs who also make up part of the Thomas clan.
The animals are a sign of what Thomas Tree & Landscape prides itself on: being a family owned and operated business since 1986. In that 30-plus years, they’ve seen the industry change quite a bit.
“In the last 10 years, people have been spending way more time in their backyards, and they spend way more time at home. Therefore, they do bigger projects,” Thomas said. “As a result, they have really nice, usable, functional backyards.”
A paver walkway spills into a large curvy patio area, lined with bright red flowering plants. A tall, stone water feature spills over into a small rock-lined pool to one side of the outdoor dining area. Plants and shrubs of varying sizes add character and depth to the area, almost like art pieces.
This design featured in the Thomases’ online portfolio is so nuanced, it’s hard to believe they learned such elaborate skills mostly through trial and error when the business got started.
“We started 32 years ago as strictly a tree service,” he said. “We did tree trimming and removals.”
Thomas, working from his and his wife Jane’s home at the time, had never done tree services before. However, in high school he sold firewood and realized a lot of money could be made that way.
“But we could make more money removing trees for people,” he said.
About 25 years ago, the Thomases began expanding into landscaping.
“Jane and I just kind of figured it out as we went,” Thomas said. “I’m not a plumber. I’m not a carpenter. I don’t know how to do any of that stuff. But the landscaping, we got that figured out.”
The Thomases have kept up with trends in the industry as they’ve come and gone. Water features at one time were on many people’s must-have lists. But now people are over the maintenance, especially with full-scale ponds that require a great deal of cleaning.
“People are busier now than they used to be. They don’t want to take the time to maintain them,” Thomas said. “The ponds we have installed, we maintain a lot of them for people.”
These days, the boulder water features are more popular. They are essentially large, sculptural rocks with a pump that sends water cascading in different ways down the rock. The average cost ranges from $2,000 to $5,000.
Patios are king
Proof of how far the Thomases have come with their business can be seen driving onto their business’s acreage, which they moved onto about 10 years ago. The large plot of land is decorated like a showroom in places, with examples of the kinds of features customers can put in their own yards.
There are landscape supplies, functioning water features where Maui Jim likes to splash, plants and paver walkways. They’ve also got 15 “great” employees, Thomas said, which is important because the company guarantees all of their jobs and holds excellent customer service in high regard.
“Some of them have degrees in landscaping. Some of them have been with us a while and have figured it all out on their own,” Thomas said. “If you don’t have good people, you’ve got nothing.”
Jane Thomas agrees. Her favorite aspects of the business are working with her employees and repeat customers.
“I enjoy the relationships that have been built over the years with our customers and working with a wonderful team of coworkers who take pride in everything they do,” she said.
Customers typically tell the Thomases briefly what they want in their yards and then fill out a three-page questionnaire with more details. After a site visit, and with a time frame and budget in mind, they mock up a landscape design for the customer’s feedback.
“Usually they say, ‘It looks beautiful. Let’s do it,’” Thomas said.
Business tends to get pretty backed up this time of year, but they fit in as many jobs as they can, Thomas said. The No. 1 requested job is patios — big, unique patios, he said. People consider a patio space to be an extension of their living space, and they want a nice looking setup for grills, dining and entertainment.
“Most patios have fire pits in them, too,” Thomas said. “Eighty percent of the patios we do have a built-in fire pit.”
During the winter, Thomas Tree & Landscape does snow removal using pickups and skid loaders. They have about 80 or 90 commercial and residential accounts.
“We also spend the winter planning for the spring,” Thomas said. “We also do a lot of education. We do seminars and classes.”
Another aspect of Thomas Tree & Landscape that has changed over 32 years is how much fun the work entails. With people taking outdoor spaces more seriously and wanting to invest more in them, the job creativity has grown immensely.
“It’s way more fun. The guys really enjoy it, too,” Thomas said. They love doing these jobs, to take a crappy backyard and rebuild everything. We’re really proud of what we do.”
Thomas Tree & Landscape
19922 Minnesota Hwy. 22,