For 13 years, the crew at Jat’s Backyard Landscaping in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory (pop. 27,900), prided themselves on doing all their work by hand — including loading trucks, digging holes and moving concrete.
“Our nickname is the Diggers,” says Matt Thomson, whose father, Alan, started the commercial and residential landscaping and hardscaping business in 1995. “That’s the thing we were known for. We’d always try to hire guys who were very strong and fit. You had to know how to shovel.”
The family business soon outgrew its humble headquarters at the Thomson family home and expanded to a location in downtown Whitehorse in 2008. With the new digs came increased business opportunities for installing retaining walls, decks and garden beds; designing landscapes; and supplying and planting local trees and shrubs for area customers. That’s when Alan, Matt and older brother Nathan realized that no matter how physically fit they were, they had to start working smarter, not harder. A family friend who’d operated Bobcat® equipment for nearly 40 years recommended they purchase a Bobcat loader, and later that year, Jat’s welcomed an MT52 mini track loader to the crew.
“Doing work by hand can be hard on your body, and you don’t realize that when you’re younger. You think you’re invincible,” Matt says. “When we bought the MT52, that’s when we stepped into the big leagues. It’s just been an incredible back-saving, career-extending machine for us.”
With the Yukon’s short growing season — spring starts at the end of April and leaves are often changing colors by August — the Jat’s crew must take advantage of the long daylight hours their far-north latitude provides during the summer months so they can accomplish more in a narrower window of time. The mini track loader has proven invaluable, Alan says, helping the crew complete jobs much faster than when they relied on shovels and wheelbarrows alone.
“This Bobcat machine handles the job 150 percent better than what we could do by hand or by any other machine that we’ve ever even thought of getting,” Alan says. “It changed my business.”
The Jat’s crew can now complete each phase of their landscaping work themselves thanks to the versatility of the mini track loader. The machine and the Bobcat attachments Jat’s purchased — including a snow blade, auger, pallet fork and buckets — have allowed the company to diversify the number of services it offers and eliminate the need for contract workers.
“We have limited our need for external contractors because the mini track loader can basically do everything,” Matt says. “We can load trucks a thousand times faster, move huge amounts of rock and soil and two guys can easily plant 15 trees in a day. We can fill trucks with the material we’ve dug up and don’t have to call in a dump truck.”
In 2016, the landscaping business upgraded to an MT85 to harness the larger machine’s extra power and lift ability. “As soon as we tried the MT85, it was an absolute ‘yes,’” Alan says. “We bought it instantly. It has not let us down yet. It hasn’t gotten us stuck. It has never failed on a task that we asked it to do. It’s the main star on our crew, for sure.”
The MT85’s size still allows Jat’s crews to fit through narrow, backyard gates but also easily transport heavy loads like rocks and large trees.
“Because it’s more powerful, I can carry more weight around with more confidence,” Matt says. “Nothing has made the MT85 tip — not trees, boulders, nothing in our landscaping world. It can lift everything comfortably and has made everything way quicker.”
When Matt isn’t using the MT85 to transport and plant trees, Nathan gets behind the controls to accomplish a variety of carpentry tasks, including hauling gravel and aggregates and installing fence posts, decks and retaining walls.
The MT85 recently flexed its landscaping muscles by helping to install trees, shrubs and beds in the yard of a trucking firm on the edge of town. The city of Whitehorse requires that new developments have landscape architecture plans in place before development permits are issued. So when a local Manitoulin Transport branch decided to expand its lot, Jat’s bid on the job and won. The Jat’s crew installed a few garden beds — one of them nearly 65 feet long — close to the property’s entrance to camouflage old buildings and chain-link fences and to add a bit of greenery to the sea of gravel that previously surrounded Manitoulin’s buildings. The result was an aesthetic that lent a more welcoming look to the property.
“They wanted to soften the commercial look of chain-link fence, add some color to the new property, and show there’s more to this property than dust and big trucks,” Alan says. “The owner really liked that we were actually putting in not just commercial trees from a nursery down south but trees that have been living in the Yukon already.”
With a government permit in tow, Jat’s sources many of its trees and shrubs from the wooded areas surrounding Whitehorse in order to create a landscaping look that creates a natural flow between developed areas and the surrounding forests and that can handle Whitehorse’s dry, sub-arctic climate.
“Every spring we go out and harvest shrubs and trees, repot them and keep them in our nursery,” Matt says. “You know that they’re going to do well and grow well because they’re from here. A lot of people want their property to look natural. We can give them that option.”
The MT85 outfitted with a pallet fork attachment unloads and transports these trees and shrubs around the job site. Swapping the fork for an auger allows the crew to dig holes perfectly sized for the plants’ rootballs.
“I think landscaping is a really fruitful job because at the end of the day you get to see what you’ve done,” Nathan says. “I really like the physical aspect of our work. It gives you a certain creativity that you get to go and build what you see in your head.”
Bonding as a Team
“After work, the Yukon is the best place in the world for any outdoor activity,” Matt says. “We’re all very active people.”
When it’s time to clock out for the day, the MT85 is put in park and the Thomsons, along with the rest of the crew, take advantage of all the recreational opportunities the northern territory has to offer, including slow-pitch softball, mountain biking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, trapping, salmon fishing, and hunting big game and upland birds, among other adventurous activities.
“It’s nice to work with everybody, but it’s also nice to be able to kick back and have some fun with everyone,” Nathan says. “You get the hardworking side and then the playful side that rejuvenates you for the next day.”
Alan never wants to see his company be made up of workers who only see each other 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Pursuing outdoor interests together helps create a bond amongst the crew, he says.
“We don’t usually work weekends,” Alan says. “We put in a good week. We work hard. Then we take our weekends off for doing the fun things that we like to do. You have to allot for that particular time. When it’s hunting season, we’re going to go out on opening day. We slot the time in, and then we’re back at it. You work hard to make that living and then you want to be able to spend it doing the things you really love. We live in a special place here. Beautiful, crazy, adventurous wilderness.”