Van Wilgen’s Garden Center in North Branford

Down to Earth

If there is one thing Connecticut residents want after a cold and gray New England winter, it’s a bit of color to reinvigorate our weary souls, and our landscapes, too.

Now’s the right time to officially trade mittens and insulated jackets for garden gloves and old t-shirts, and to schedule a long-overdue appointment with the greenery in your life—or the greenery that’s about to be. At Van Wilgen’s Garden Center in North Branford, for example, rows of pink begonias, orange marigolds and delicate blue creeping phlox await.

In 1920, after serving in WWI, William C. Van Wilgen moved to the United States from Holland to trade in plants and nursery goods, soon starting what has been and remains one of the area’s best-regarded gardening resources. Today, with the founder’s grandson Bill Van Wilgen at the helm, Van Wilgen’s main location (there are also satellite locations in Guilford, Milford and Old Saybrook) sits on an impressive 52 acres of land, 14 of which are dedicated to growing their own Christmas trees.

What its size means for customers, beyond a wide and varied array of choices, is that many of the flowers, shrubs, vegetables, herbs and trees available there have been grown on-site. Van Wilgen’s does purchase items such as very large trees from outside vendors, but the website notes that last year’s homegrown crop included 100,000 annuals, 60,000 perennials and 40,000 herbs.

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The Van Wilgen’s staff includes accredited experts trained to provide advice on all aspects of plant care. And that’s good, because questions abound at Van Wilgen’s, where gardeners of all stripes mix amongst the colorful petals and leaves reaching for the sun.

I asked staffer Henry Eggert for tips specific to this time of year, and here’s what he offered:

• May is a good time to weed and turn the soil in flower and vegetable beds, in preparation for planting.

• Once the temperature consistently stays about 50 degrees, it’s safe to plant.

• There’s still time to seed lawns for grass, using salt hay to keep the seed moist and to keep birds from eating it all up.

• Starting a vegetable garden for the first time? Or haven’t had success in the past? Eggert recommends planting tomatoes, peppers and beans. Those plants tend to do especially well over a Connecticut summer and yield a tasty, healthful crop.

• The heartiest (read: most foolproof) herbs to grow are basil, rosemary and oregano.

At Van Wilgen’s, it’s possible to spend just a few dollars on a few seedlings or small annuals, or $30 upwards on a larger shrub or tree. A strategic layout makes landscape planning—and impulse purchases—easier; one section features plants that attract butterflies, for example.

The healthy lemon and peach trees on display probably don’t need any help getting the attention they deserve. There’s a lot of wow-factor already; even experienced vegetable and fruit growers may be surprised to find out that, indeed, they can thrive here in Connecticut. Another intriguing possibility, new to Van Wilgen’s this year, involves “BrazelBerries,” a branded line of miniature blueberries and raspberries that can be grown in containers (perfect for the urban gardener).

Even within the expected varietals—many of which are grown organically—such as tomatoes, peppers, beans, berries and rows of fresh green herbs, there’s often diversity to be found. For example, there’s a “burpless” variety of cucumber that’s easier to digest.

Not all of Van Wilgen’s inventory relies on photosynthesis. The center’s garden supplies section is big enough to be its own store. There are basic tools, like stakes, trowels and twine, and their new line of Van Wilgen’s-produced soils as well as more luxury goods, like woven sun hats, or Sloggers, a fashionable brand of waterproof footwear. A wall dedicated to kids’ gardening includes colorful, miniature watering cans and garden tools.

One thing you won’t find on the grounds this year are common impatiens flowers, whose colors and affinity for shade make them popular with home gardeners. The reason, says Matt Ford, who manages marketing and advertising for Van Wilgen’s, is “downy mildew,” an aggressive parasite so abundant this year in the general impatiens population that the center decided not to take any risks.

To fill the gap, the store has stocked up on shade-loving flowers just as pretty, including New Guinea impatiens, which aren’t affected by the disease, as well as other hybrids.

From there, the sky, together with the borders of your terrace, stoop, or yard, is the limit.

Van Wilgen’s Garden Center
51 Valley Road, North Branford (map)
Mon-Fri 8am-7pm, Sat-Sun 8am-6pm
(203) 488-2110

Written by Cara McDonough. Photo #1 by Cara McDonough; photo #2 courtesy of Van Wilgen’s.

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