It all started in 1920, William C. Van Wilgen came to the United States from Boskoop, Holland as a nursery salesman. He settled in a house on Old Pine Orchard Road in Branford and began propagating on the surrounding property and grew nursery stock in the fields that are now Tabor Road, in Branford. He sold the property to purchase 220 acres on Valley Road in North Branford. Today, Van Wilgen’s occupies 56 acres of land that was originally purchased back in 1936.
William imported from Holland and marketed the Rhododendron ‘Wilgen’s Ruby’, a variety created by his brother, Aart. A local nursery produces ‘Wilgen’s Ruby” for us and it is still available at the garden center. It is best known for its amazing flowers; ruby red blooms with dark spots becoming more pronounced deeper into the throat.
There were fields of nursery stock that were grown to sell wholesale. Van Wilgen’s Nursery delivered plants as far as New Jersey, which was a long ride down US-1. They loaded and drove plants in a 1939 Diamond T truck. Today we have a restored version just like the truck that was owned and used on the farm every day.
Over the years, landscaping and tree work became part of William’s business and in 1960 his son Cornelius, joined the long line of nurserymen to work with plants.
In 1976, grandson William Van Wilgen took over the business responsibilities. His primary focus was to enhance the landscaping services of the business and in 1977 he opened Van Wilgen’s Garden Center. The garden center was a small retail location, and mostly a tool to support his landscaping service. When Bill took over there were acres of overgrown material that needed to be pulled out. Bill remembers tending to and digging nursery plants early in the morning, installing those plants during the day, and working late on the farm at night to keep cleaning up. In 1988, Bill decided to transition his landscaping business to a larger retail establishment and began focusing on the garden center.
In 1992, the Van Wilgen Grown brand was born. The initial product line included a variety of annuals and perennials. At that time there were only a few small hoop houses and a small growing area. Soon after introducing the Van Wilgen Grown brand, Bill teamed up with a retail consultant and started expanding the garden center. A larger retail facility and growing greenhouses quickly went up.
Over the years it has been our goal to constantly improve our facility to improve the shopping experience. Bill has worked very hard to turn Van Wilgen’s into what he pictured in his dreams. There have been many rounds of improvements to the facility throughout the years including moving our growing area across the river, a complete teardown and rebuild of the retail store, removing the large garage in the middle of the parking lot, building a warehouse, an addition onto the store, adding more growing space, restoring the historical barn in the parking lot.
In 2008, Bill’s son, Ryan continued the family tradition by becoming a full-time employee of the family business. He graduated from UMASS in 2007 and moved to Oregon to work for another family-owned garden center to gain experience before jumping right into the family business. During his time away from the company Bill was diagnosed with leukemia. It was rocky roads while trying to overcome Bill’s battle with cancer, an unstable economy, and in the middle of a major store renovation. Bill’s team of managers took the reins while Ryan finished out his commitment in Oregon and Bill focused on his battle. The whole team stepped up to the plate and steered the business.
In 2010 the Guilford and Old Saybrook Garden Marts were opened. Van Wilgen Grown plants were our focus, we wanted to share our line of plants with more gardeners. It was a very exciting day we loaded up our new box truck and shipped a load of plants to another store! That was a first for us, we had transported trailer load after trailer load of plants from growing to our greenhouse. The next year we opened our Milford Garden Mart. Years prior Van Wilgen’s tried to open a store in Milford and things did not work out, we finally made it!
Today Van Wilgen’s continues to have you in mind. We are passionate about making your experience the best it can be. We consider ourselves a big family and I’m sure you recognize many of our faces, there is a long list of people who have been a part of the team for many years!