The Detroit News
The Detroit News
Garden design business makes splash with water
Many business owners have to work hard to establish a niche identity for their companies, but that marketing coup came naturally to Daryl Toby, founder of AguaFina Gardens & Imports.
Toby has found a way to combine his love of travel with an expertise in creating gardens with small ponds and other water features. By importing Asian artifacts and artworks, Toby has given what used to be a fairly traditional landscaping company an exotic identity and a growing retail arm. AguaFina attracts many high-end design-and-install projects that can exceed $600,000, while retail customers can find distinctive Asian artifacts for a few hundred dollars.
The dramatic identity change has been an evolution, Toby said, rather than the result of a business plan. “Nothing was intentional in this company,” he said. Toby, 35, has been in landscaping since he started mowing lawns when he was 15. After earning a degree in natural resource management at Michigan State University, he built up a landscaping business that included design, installation and maintenance services.
Growing client interest in water gardens has transformed the business in the past five years. Toby has dropped the company’s old name, AFM Landscape, no longer does regular landscaping and provides maintenance only for projects he has done.
Toby’s penchant for travel during the off-season eventually led him to Asia, where he found the items that now provide him with a competitive edge in garden design. “Access to products from Asia that no one else has makes us unique,” he said. Imports often play a prominent role in his designs. A current project features centuries-old granite slabs that were used as street pavers in Chinese villages. “I like to find new ways to use old materials,” he said.
Toby brings creativity and a respect for the entire process to his garden designs, said client Tom Schaden of Oakland Township. Schaden said Toby succeeded in creating a Japanese garden where previous attempts had failed by keeping the good features, discarding the “flash in the pan” ideas and adding elements as he went along, such as a large boulder. “You change as you move through the process, and he has the ability to do that,” Schaden said.
That seems to be Toby’s approach to business as well. After installing a water garden near New Delhi, India, over the winter, he’s looking for more international jobs during Michigan’s off-season. He also wants to expand his importing business and get into the Chicago market. Those goals aren’t set in stone. “We’re still trying to find the direction of the company. It all depends on what our clients bring to us,” he said. AguaFina opened a supply center for garden pools two years ago, providing another retail outlet that supports the core business. But Toby no longer imports furniture from Asia because that doesn’t fit in with the direction the company has taken.
While Asian design and artifacts have created a distinctive image for AguaFina, two other designers on staff provide a wide range of approaches. Jeff White has a background in art along with a degree from the College of Creative Studies, and Mark Hanford earned his degree in horticulture and landscape design from Ferris State University. White said successful garden designers respond to the clients’ interests and their expectations for the space. “All our projects are as unique as the individuals who request them,” he said.