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Article Published November 18, 2020

Van Wilgen's 100th Year Adds to 'Growing' Appreciation for Branford's Foote Riverside Park

By Pam Johnson/

With help from Van Wilgen's,  the Town of Branford is hoping residents will have a growing appreciation for Foote Riverside Park on Pine Orchard Road.

For over a year, with support from First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove, Branford Public Works (BPW) has been working to clear up and upgrade previously overgrown areas of the park, said BPW supervisor Gary Zielinski.   The project is now getting a big boost: 100 plantings donated by the Van Wilgen family and Van Wilgen's Garden Center.

The park, which sits along the Branford River on Pine Orchard Road, has a meadow-like section which had always been maintained with mowing but was "underused" by the public, said Zielinski.

"It was just kind of forgotten about," said Zielinski. "Working with Jamie Cosgrove, our goal is to try to clean up [these types of] areas in Branford so hopefully, someday, we'll have a little piece of town-owned property you can go to enjoy in all areas of town. For myself, it's been kind of a passion. We've cleaned out quite a few areas around town."

BPW's work to enhance the section of property at Foote Riverside Park started last year. As crews reclaimed space covered by overgrowth and invasive flora, the open space grew and the layout of the full park became much more visible, highlighting the way the Branford River splits the park property at one point, and curves against it at another. With oversight from Branford Community Forest Commission (BCFC) BPW also planted a small grove of Eastern Redbud trees, which are native to the area. BPW crews also put in some native wildflowers, and built and installed wooden benches overlooking points along the Branford River, said Zielinksi.

The work did not go unnoticed by Bill Van Wilgen and his son, Ryan Van Wilgen. A Branford resident, Bill Van Wilgen is the owner/president of Van Wilgen's Garden Center based in North Branford; Ryan Van Wilgen is vice president. The company was founded 100 years ago in Branford by Bill's grandfather, Willem Van Wilgen, who set up shop at the family's original homestead on Old Pine Orchard Road. The house, which still exists today, overlooks Foote Riverside Park, said Ryan Van Wilgen.

"About a year ago right now, we were talking about our goals for 2020, and said we've got a 100 year anniversary -- what ways can we celebrate it?" he said. "One of the things we came up with was that Gary had just cleared that area which was right across from the original Van Wilgen homestead. So we said why don't we connect with them and see if we can plant 100 plants for the 100 years of Van Wilgen's? And Gary was really excited about the idea."

"It's a great story because there's history there. Van Wilgen's has been in business in Branford and North Branford for 100 years," said Zielinski, adding that, coincidentally, his own grandfather emigrated from Europe to this area and was employed as a tree grafter by Willem Van Wilgen.

Zielinski said Van Wilgen's contribution to Foote Riverside Park is just one of many ways Van Wilgen's has long contributed public plantings and garden installments to help enhance the community.

"It's Bill's way of giving back," said Zielinski. "He's always been very supportive, a lot of times in ways you don't often hear about."

Van Wilgen's donation of 100 plantings for Foote Riverside Park was originally set to start with plants going into the ground in April 2020. But, as Ryan Van Wilgen pointed out, "...2020 had other plans."

Instead, the first phase of planting took place on Friday, Nov. 6, when Van Wilgen's donation of five disease-resistant Princeton elm trees and six Eastern Redbud trees went in. The elms were selected because, one hundred years ago, "...elm was such a predominant street tree, especially in this area and New Haven, which is known as the Elm City,'" said Ryan Van Wilgen.

In the 1930's, Dutch Elm disease caused massive losses among many well-established urban elms.

"There were issues with the Elm tree that plagued the whole country, but they've [since] worked on resistant cultivars," said Van Wilgen.

To show what these trees can lend to a landscape, Van Wilgen points out the towering elm on Montowese Street in front of the former Citizens Bank. The Town maintains the elm with assistance from tree care professionals, said Zielinski.

"That's a beautiful elm," said Van Wilgen. "That shape, that goes way up and kind of cascades over, made such beautiful street trees and urban trees. So we wanted to tie that into it, because Branford once had tons of elms."

On Nov. 6, the five elms and six Redbud trees were planted with help -- and a bit of celebration -- from Bill Van Wilgen, Zielinski, BPW members and BCFC members.

"My dad dug the holes," said Ryan Van Wilgen. "I know how excited he was to be able to plant these trees, and I know he was very excited to help Gary and help beautify this park. But it's also the fact that it was right across the street from the original homestead -- a hundred feet from where we planted some of these trees, my great-grandfather started Van Wilgen's. I could just imagine how great-grandpa Van Wilgen would feel if he were to be in his homestead, looking out the window, seeing 100 years later that we're still vested in horticulture, we're still vested in community and we're still here...we're still growing strong."

Van Wilgen's Garden Center in North Branford has another special connection to the area. The company's extensive retail garden center, nursery facilities and fields are located at 51 Valley Road in North Branford, where, "...the Branford river cuts right through the middle of our property," said Van Wilgen. "And it's all the way down there at the park, too. It all ties in."

Van Wilgen's will deliver more plantings to Foote Riverside Park beginning about April 2021, to help BPW begin to install the balance of the 100 donated plants, including smaller shrubs, plants and pollinator-friendly flowers.

"I know that Gary and the Tree Commission put a lot of emphasis on native and pollinator plants, so we're going to pick up their cue and put in a lot of plants that will be good for the native environment," said Van Wilgen, adding, "...I said to Gary that we'll have to add one more plant on top, for the 101st year."

He said Van Wilgen's is looking forward to returning in the spring to help further beautify Foote Riverside Park.

"The Redbud trees will be blooming sometime in April. They have bright pink flowers that come out before a lot of the leaves come out, so it's really going to make that area pop," said Van Wilgen. "And then we're going to make some meandering pathways through those trees, and add to it with a bunch of other shrubs and perennials. I can visualize meandering through that park. And when you're driving by on Pine Orchard Road; it's going to really grab your attention."

Zielinski said the Town is incredibly grateful for the Van Wilgen family's support for the project. He said area residents are already pleased with the park's progress and that he's excited for what they'll see growing there in the near future.

"We've gotten nothing but praise and great feedback from the neighbors," said Zielinski.  "It's just another great place in Branford people can go and enjoy, even if you just want to walk along the river and sit on one of those benches. And eventually, there's going to be all  kinds of flowers and plants and trees."