Thomsen Greenhouses and Garden Center, Incorporated History
St. Joseph, Minnesota 56374
Telephone: (320) 363-7375
Fax: (320) 363-0025
NAIC: 444220 Garden Centers, Nurseries
At Thomsen's we strive to be at the forefront of our industry by offering a vast array of top quality plants and gardening supplies to our customers. Our greenhouses are filled with annual and perennial flowers, hanging baskets, and vegetable plants. Our shrub and tree lots contain over 250 varieties of trees, shrubs and perennial vines. In addition to our plant stock we sell landscape material, garden containers and statuary. We invite our customers to tour our greenhouse and gardens and to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of our peaceful setting. Come stroll our backyard garden and ask questions of our master gardeners. Come spend time with us and you'll find out why we are the source for avid gardeners in Central Minnesota and throughout the region.
- The company builds its first hoop greenhouse.
- The company begins selling plants to other retailers.
- The company begins full-time retail operation.
- Lord and Burnham glass houses are purchased.
- Reconstruction is finished; Christmas Under Glass poinsettia and tree sales are held for the first time.
- The company begins building its Backyard Gardens.
- A mechanized trolley system for plant moving is installed.
- A transplanting machine is installed.
Thomsen Greenhouses and Garden Center, Incorporated (Thomsen's), with more than 62,000 square feet of indoor growing space, is the largest retail greenhouse under glass in Minnesota. The greenhouse provides gardeners throughout the central Minnesota region with a host of plant materials, including trees, shrubs, annual and perennial flowers, vegetable plants, landscape materials, and garden novelties. The garden center houses more than 5,000 hanging baskets, 10,000 flats of annuals and more than 800 varieties of perennial plants in the spring and summer growing season.
Staking a Claim in Collegeville Township: 1960s-70s
Tucked in the rolling hills of Collegeville Township, Minnesota, Thomsen's began its history rooted in the personal interests of its founders, Bob and Bonnie Thomsen. But, having an interest in a given area and enjoying what you do is not always sufficient to grow a successful business. Fortunately for the Thomsens there were two other favorable factors at work when they established Thomsen's in 1981. First there was an emerging market of home gardeners spurred on by the do-it-yourself television home shows and magazines and, perhaps more important, there was a commitment and dedication on the part of the Thomsens to a lot of hard work.
In the late 1960s Bob and Bonnie Thomsen were young recent graduates of St. Cloud State University. Bob had majored in political science and sociology and Bonnie pursued a degree in education. They met while students, then married and settled in St. Cloud.
After a few years of city living the Thomsens found land in rural Collegeville, Minnesota, and began to build a home. In the fall of 1973 the couple found a dismantled old log cabin for sale and began to reassemble it on their property. It turned out to be no easy task. The parts were not marked and needed to be puzzled together. To make things even more difficult the property was without electricity, so primitive hand tools were required for construction projects.
The Thomsens eventually settled in the newly built cabin and homesteaded without running water, refrigeration, or electric lights for an entire year. Relying on kerosene lanterns for light, an outhouse for bathroom facilities, and a stream for cold storage, Bob and Bonnie led a Henry David Thoreau-like lifestyle the first year. The following summer the couple added a garage and lean-to greenhouse and brought electrical wiring to the garage. An extension cord running from the garage to the cabin enabled the couple to have electric lights the second year. In the coming years they added a second cabin to their home and brought in plumbing and electricity.
Bob Thomsen worked at a variety of jobs during the early years of their marriage. He eventually settled on starting a small excavation business of his own. Bonnie had become certified in special education. Her first years teaching were spent in a parochial school in St. Cloud. In 1975, she was offered a position in the nearby Rocori school district.
Embracing the frontier lifestyle the two had carved out for themselves, the Thomsens began building their homestead throughout the 1970s. Their interest in gardening led them to build a small lean-to greenhouse off of their cabin, where they began growing vegetables from seed. The Thomsens often had a surplus of seedlings and sold the remainder to friends, colleagues, and neighbors.
It was fortuitous that the interest in their seedlings coincided with a lag in the new business Bob had begun. Bob had bought a bulldozer, truck, and trailer, and was trying to get his company established, but the record high interest rates of the late 1970s had slowed the demand for excavation work. Thomsen had decided to sell the business and put the money they made from the sale of his equipment into a new business venture.
The Thomsens had been toying with the idea of greenhouse gardening when a serendipitous trip to Utah sealed the deal. While rafting down the Colorado River, the Thomsens met a couple from Wisconsin who owned and operated a wholesale greenhouse. The Thomsens followed up on the chance meeting by visiting the couple at their Milwaukee greenhouse. Armed with the advice gleaned from their meetings the Thomsens turned to books and the Minnesota Extension Service horticulturist to continue to hone the concept of beginning their own commercial greenhouse into a plan of operation.
The 1980s and 1990s: Building the Business
In the fall of 1981 Bob and Bonnie Thomsen built a 30- by 100-foot hoop-style greenhouse and began to prepare for their first season of commercial growing the following spring. The undertaking was on a fairly modest scale at the outset, but in the summer of 1982 Thomsen's added a second hoop house, doubling its growing space and anticipating future sales. The following year the greenhouse expanded again when a four-bay, gutter-connected greenhouse was added and the head house was built.
Thomsen's Greenhouses' early years were focused on growing vegetable seedlings and a small variety of plants such as potted geraniums and assorted container plants. Bob traveled the area grocery store circuit selling his plants to retailers and building accounts. For a time the greenhouse operated three satellite retail outlets in St. Joseph, Buffalo, and Monticello, Minnesota. The wholesale area that Thomsen's serviced ran from St. Cloud to Minneapolis and as far west as Long Prairie, Minnesota. Soon word began to spread about the charming greenhouse in Collegeville Township.
Thomsen's had introduced itself as a wholesale grower, growing solely for commercial retailers, but the retail market was expanding and the absence of a large, quality retail greenhouse in the region led the Thomsens to rethink the company's direction. In 1987 Thomsen's opened its retail outlet full-time. According to a 1996 article in the St. Cloud Times the Thomsens decided to transition to a retail business after experimenting with retail sales for one weekend a year.
"We kept getting busier each year," Bob said. Customers would flood the greenhouse for its annual retail sale. It was a gamble that paid off when the store opened regularly to retail customers and the early annual turnout turned out to be a good prediction of future demand. In order to get the new business off the ground Bonnie Thomsen took a five-year leave of absence from the school district. The following year in 1989 Thomsen's purchased Lord and Burnam Glass Houses and the company spent two years reconstructing the greenhouses and setting up two Quonset huts in the back of the new buildings.
Throughout its years of operation Thomsen's has held a series of special events and activities designed to promote itself to the local community. In an effort to draw people to the greenhouse and extend the season beyond the typical spring and summer garden center focus, Thomsen's hosted an annual winter celebration it called, "Christmas Under Glass." The company sold Christmas trees and poinsettias and held special festive activities for customers. Christmas Under Glass featured choirs singing traditional carols, horse-drawn trolley rides, a reindeer and sleigh team, cookie decorating, and story telling. The celebration ran annually from 1990 though 1994.
In a 1990 article in the local St. Joseph Newsleader Bob Thomsen described the growth of the business, particularly the retail end of the operation: "The people who come out the first weekend in May are absolutely spellbound by all the stuff we have in here." He continued to recount the spring rush and Mother's Day madness when thousands of loyal customers frequent the aisles at Thomsen's to purchase gift certificates, hanging baskets, and garden merchandise. For many locals Mother's Day was incomplete without a visit to the garden center. Braving the crowds to enjoy the sights and smells of spring and encounter friends and neighbors had become a tradition for many in St. Cloud and its surrounding towns.
In 1996, in a collaborative effort under the direction and design of landscape architect Stacy Kalthof the staff at Thomsen's added its Backyard Gardens. Built around the focal point of an existing pond, a small walking path wound its way around lush gardens marked with plant tags so customers could identify plants they liked. The space was similar to a small-scale landscape arboretum and the inviting area brought many weekend visitors to Collegeville. The garden featured a pond shop run by Scenic Specialties from 2000 to 2003 and a Cabin Creek Coffee shop complete with freshly brewed coffee and baked goods in 2004.
Fine-Tuning the Operation: 1990s and Beyond
In 1997 Thomsen's added a 90- by 100-foot Perennial House. An assortment of perennial plants were always available at the greenhouse but the expansion made possible the addition of greater plant offerings. There was space for more than 800 varieties of perennial plants. An assortment of popular woodland flowers and bulbs also filled the space.
Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s the company installed many labor-saving devices that helped the greenhouse staff keep up with the growing customer demand. A trolley system that allowed greenhouse staff to move plants through the buildings without having to push cumbersome carts was installed in 1998. In 2000, a mechanized flat and pot filler allowed staff to make quick work of filling the multitude of planting trays and pots for seeding, transplanting, and potting. Seasonal workers also were engaged to assist with planting and transplanting. The company's seasonal employment included hiring temporary workers to keep up with the spring rush and hiring adult handicapped workers through a local agency to help during peak transplanting time.
Throughout the spring Thomsen's was a favorite destination for a number of school children. Local area schools took advantage of the beautiful setting with its acres of blooming plants and its outdoor garden for field trips. Children toured the buildings and were taught basic horticultural facts and encouraged to plant a flower and take it home to care for it. A free kids garden club was organized by the greenhouse in 1997. Children participated in growing an outdoor vegetable and flower garden, worked on craft projects, learned about the environment and horticulture, and celebrated the harvest with an end of the season cookout.
In 1996 Thomsen's began its Best Yard Contest. Amateur gardeners were called on to submit photos for judging with gift certificates ranging from a $200 first prize to a $50 third prize. The contest ran for several years annually.
In addition to the Best Yard Contest the staff at Thomsen's initiated a self-directed garden tour each summer. Picturesque gardens were selected throughout the area by Thomsen's master gardener Diane Hansgen. Ticket buyers received a map with garden descriptions for the self-directed tour with proceeds benefitting the United Arts of Central Minnesota, an area nonprofit organization. The tour sold as many as a thousand tickets in a given season.
In addition to its philanthropic work with the garden tour, the greenhouse sponsored local arts productions for children through two area colleges, The College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, and made many in-kind charitable donations that helped local nonprofit organizations through plant sales and assorted fundraisers.
The staff at Thomsen's helped customers over the years with their landscape and garden plans. Customers could request a landscape planner sheet provided free by the greenhouse. The client could then schedule a meeting with a landscape designer from Thomsen's with the first hour free of charge. Design services were by appointment and were not available during the greenhouse peak month of May. The company web site also provided garden designs that could be replicated by homeowners. The web site garden categories included plans for shade, cottage, sun, butterfly, mailbox or lamppost, and fence and border gardens.
Each year the business maintained a presence at the St. Cloud Home and Garden show. The booth for Thomsen's Greenhouse was introduced to answer questions, help with design work, and promote the greenhouse to the public.
Thomsen's had continued to flourish in the years since its inception. The greenhouse had grown at a steady rate and Thomsen's had captured a good part of the market in its geographical region. People from rural areas all around the state and into Wisconsin still made annual pilgrimages to buy the quality plants for their own yards and gardens. The need for premium landscaping plants had remained steady. New home construction in the region also remained strong, bringing an increased demand for landscape needs. In addition, home and garden TV shows as well as special interest magazines continued to promote and respond to the trend for home improvement and home makeovers featuring garden transformations. All the focus had helped Thomsen's establish and continue to grow its business. The company seemed assured of realizing its mission to be an area leader in assisting gardeners in their outdoor beautification projects.
Principal Competitors: Gertens Greenhouse; Linders Greenhouse.
- DuBois, John, "Business Is Blooming," St. Cloud Times, May 1994 p. 1C.
- Goldschen, Stuart, "Thomsen Greenhouses Debut Half a Million Plants," St. Joseph Newsleader, April 27, 1990.
- "Thomsen Greenhouses in Rural St. Joe Keeps on Growing," St. Cloud Times, April 5, 1990, p. 3.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 65. St. James Press, 2004.