For 80 years, answering questions has been a big part of what Ganim’s Garden Center & Florist in Fairfield does.
“We want to help people whenever we can,” said Merrilee Ganim, granddaughter of the firm’s founder John Ganim and current co-owner of the business with her father, Lee. “People will see something blooming on the side of the street and come in and ask what it is, and we’ll tell them, ‘Oh, that’s a hydrangea’ or ‘That’s a dogwood.’
“Sometimes they’re surprised by our honesty,” she added with a laugh. “I had someone come in who wanted to buy fertilizer even though it was not the right time to be using it. I tried explaining it to him and he was like, ‘So … you don’t want me to buy this right now?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to stop you, but if you want to save a little money and time, come back in a month or two.’”
After succeeding at his gardening by following Ganim’s advice, she continued, “He came back and said, ‘I will come here for the rest of my life, because you gave me the results I needed.’”
It’s that kind of personal touch that separates an operation like Ganim’s Garden Center from the big boxes that Merrilee said are always encroaching on their territory. For the most part, she said, “A place like Home Depot will just sell you something and move on to the next customer. We take the time to answer questions and make sure customers are doing what they need to do to get the best results.”
It’s an approach that started when then-21-year-old John Ganim lost his factory job in 1937. After about a year of hauling potatoes from Connecticut to Florida — and bringing back oranges on the return trip to be sold to local wholesalers — he opened Ganim’s Outdoor Market at 650 North Ave. in Bridgeport.
Over time the business grew to include an ever-expanding line of fruits, vegetables, and other plants, including a robust trade in Christmas trees. In 1968, John relocated to 320 Kings Highway Cut-Off in Fairfield, where the garden center has since remained.
John’s son Lee can recall selling produce on the corner as a high school student while the building was being constructed; later he enrolled at UConn-Stamford, where he earned a B.S. in horticulture in 1974. Soon after the family acquired an adjoining lot on Meadow Street and in 1981 had the parcel leveled in order to make room for larger trees and plant material as well as bagged products.
When John died in 1991 — one year after Home Depot came to Fairfield, Merrilee noted — Lee instituted a number of upgrades to the business, including an expanded inventory.
In 1999, Lee’s son Austin graduated from UConn with an A.S. in horticulture. The family acquired Lawn Care of Fairfield Inc. when its owner retired in 2004, further expanding its operations. Merrilee followed with a business degree from Central Connecticut State University and a certification from the Connecticut Florists Association, adding a full-service florist component.
Not that it was always expected that she and her brother would join the family business, Merrilee said. “Everyone needed to work here so we’d have some type of work experience, but it was never a given that we’d have careers here,” she said. “My brother always knew he wanted to do something with landscape design, but I started out studying athletic training before coming back here.”
Merrilee and Austin call their children — they each have two, ranging in age from 11 years to 15 months — “the fourth generation,” though she said it’s obviously too early to take such an appellation seriously.
In the meantime, second-generation Lee is still going strong, attending trade shows and trying to stay on top of the latest social media trends. “He talks about Twitter, but he has no idea what it actually is,” Merrilee joked.
Seven years ago, Lee started a radio show, “That Garden Guy,” on WICC-AM. Originally a five-minute Sunday morning segment, the show has since evolved from a half-hour call-in show to an hour-long edition that includes — of course — a Q&A segment. The Garden Center archives podcasts of the weekly show on its website, and has added a mobile app that rewards customers with reward points for every purchase.
“He just has so much knowledge,” Merrilee marveled about her father. “My brother and I are always pushing ourselves in that area. But when you ask (Lee) where he got a lot of that knowledge, he just says, ‘I always paid attention.’ And I’ve tried to take that to heart — you never know what you can learn from somebody else.”
Today Ganim’s Garden Center & Florist, in conjunction with Austin Ganim Landscape Design, supports a full-service garden center, commercial/residential landscape maintenance and installation services, landscape design services, and a florist department that services clients for weddings, funerals and other occasions.
The firm officially observed its 80th anniversary on Sept. 21-24 with a number of activities, from a ceremonial ribbon cutting on the 21st with First Selectman Michael Tetreau to a number of guest gardening lectures, sales and giveaways.
Merrilee Ganim said that she hoped the business can reach its 100th anniversary, if not its 160th. The key to achieving that, she said, “is to keep up with the trends, stay with products that will sell and work in this area — and expanding more would be just fantastic.”
The roughly one acre that Ganim’s sits on now last grew in 2011, when it acquired an adjacent piece of unproductive property from the Connecticut Department of Transportation. That expansion provided increased visibility for the garden center’s live inventory, allowing customers the opportunity to view products just by driving along Kings Highway Cut-Off, she said.
And, obviously, there will be more questions for the Ganims and their 15-person staff to answer.
“That never stops,” she laughed, “but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”