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Consolini & Tonan: Planting Gardens, Building Community

 

By Ruth Melville

Marc Tonan and Marialisa Consolini, the co-owners of Consolini & Tonan Landscape Design, have been working together, on and off, for over 25 years.

Both gardeners got an early start on their future careers. When he was only 11 years old, Tonan was hired by Fred and Mary Ann McGourty to help out with shredding leaves, and he continued to work for them at their Hillside Gardens for many years. After graduating from college with a degree in horticulture and landscape design, he moved to Boston and started a landscape design business there before coming back to Connecticut in 1990. Although based in Norfolk, he’s had clients all over New England and as far south as New Jersey.

Consolini had grown up in the Salisbury/Lakeville area and, like her new boss, had been interested in gardening from an early age. She got started in high school by answering ads for gardening help and working on weekends. She graduated from college with a horticulture degree and continued her education with courses at the New York Botanical Garden and Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY.

Tonan and Consolini met in 1992 when he hired her to work on a garden he was installing in Salisbury. After working for Tonan for two years, Consolini left to start her own gardening business in Salisbury. She had an all-female crew of five, plus her brother, working for her.

Several years later, she and Tonan met up again and became business associates and eventually life partners, marrying in 2005. Although they were working together and collaborating on projects, they didn’t combine their two businesses into one LLC until 2011. “It was natural to combine the two business,” Tonan says. “It allows us to be more flexible and to take on bigger projects.” And besides, he jokes, the paperwork was simpler. “We got tired of cross-billing each other and filling out all those 1099s.”

Consolini & Tonan’s core business is designing, installing and maintaining gardens, but they emphasize that “no job is too small or too large for us.” They feel that their niche is providing personal service, “all-inclusive, whatever the client needs or wants.” They’ll plant anything from a pot of annuals to a 30-foot tree, and are happy to undertake projects that take years to complete. They do most of the work themselves, but they can bring in other contractors if necessary.

Consolini also does a lot of indoor and outdoor decorations, from Christmas trees to holiday dinner tables and wedding receptions. This winter she planted the urns in front of the National Iron Bank on Station Place.

They have never had to advertise for customers. Tonan says, “We don’t do Facebook or Twitter. The one time I put an ad in the Yellow Pages, I got 570 phone calls for lawn mowing—and we don’t even do lawn moving! We’re looking for clients who’ve heard of us and are willing to give it a go.”

The firm owns 11 trucks and employs up to 20 people a season. “We are fortunate,” Tonan says, “that we’re able to hire only local people, and we try not to overbook.” He is proud that they have never had to advertise for help. During the winter, the company keep on a base crew, doing jobs like cutting firewood, cleaning up woods and burning brush, maintaining tools and equipment, pruning, putting up deer fencing and working on special projects.

Keeping a crew busy during the winter also means they’re ready to hit the ground running when spring comes. Right now, at the end of January, the two owners are finishing up last year’s paperwork and drawing up plant lists for the coming season. Digging should start in about a month.

It sounds like a cliché, but in speaking with Consolini and Tonan it soon becomes clear that their business is not just about plants, it’s about people. They get enthusiastic when talking about their customers—some of whom have been with them for years—but positively ebullient when talking about their crew. For them, as it was for the McGourtys, their crew is family. Every year for the past 17 years they have taken the crew on a vacation trip to their house on Nantucket over the Labor Day holiday. Everyone goes paddleboarding, clamming, fishing, and they cook meals together from the day’s catch. It’s a time to just relax after a busy summer and to spend some time hanging out together.

They also host an annual gingerbread party at the ambulance barn for their workers and their kids. This year the group made 15 gingerbread houses.

Consolini and Tonan both grew up in this area, and they have strong ties to the local community. Consolini is on the consulting committee for the vocational agriculture program at Regional 7 High School. She is also on the board of Trade Secrets, an annual rare plant and garden antique sale that raises money for Womens’ Support Services, a nonprofit organization helping victims of domestic violence in Litchfield County.

Tonan’s father—and his professors in college—warned him that he couldn’t make a living here doing garden maintenance for private clients, but he’s obviously proved them wrong. Asked what makes their business so successful and rewarding, Consolini says, “We’re both very detail oriented, but we also both love working with our crews.” Tonan adds that “we don’t ever feel like we’re going to work in the morning. It’s like being with family.”

Summing up her feelings about their business, Consolini says, “We’re blessed to have the clients we have for as long as we’ve had, and we’re blessed to be able to work in this area. We’re just blessed all around.” And she has a recommendation about how to ward off ticks: “Eat spicy foods, lots of garlic and peppers.”

Photo, top, courtesy of Consolini & Tonan: The crew pauses for a photo op  in a Norfolk garden. Consolini is on the far right.

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