Riverside Nursery: a little bit of beauty off the beaten path. Too long for a slogan, perhaps, but just the right sentence to describe a near-legendary Salem destination for the last quarter-century.
Tucked on the edge of a forest and in the long shadow of Green Hill, a stone’s throw from the Roanoke River, this nursery on winding W. Riverside Drive has been supplying annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees – and its famous tomatoes – to Salem’s families and businesses year after year, rain or shine.
Whatever was in season, 12 months a year, could be found at Riverside. Now, things are changing. Everything changes, eventually. But it’s not what you think.
Don’t let the big “liquidation” signs out front fool you.
“We’re not closing down, “ founder and owner Bruce Feldberg told a reporter who wandered by after hearing a rumor the nursery was going out of business.
“We’re just going seasonal,” he said. “March through July, basically. The spring season is the best season for the most flowers and plants. We want keep doing what we do best.”
So this year, Feldberg is shutting the doors to the roughly 20 greenhouses right around the Fourth of July. Inventory is going for half-price. But that’s just part of the story.
Salem’s green thumbs, and all who enjoy the colors and scents of horticulture, have been worrying Riverside was saying goodbye.
“Nope,” Feldberg said. “I’m the owner. We’ll be open again next spring. As good or better than ever.”
There are multiple reasons for the compression to spring season. “I’m a businessman,” Feldberg said. “Along with a nurseryman, farmer, botanist, biologist, mechanic, electrician, plumber, accountant, industry researcher, and sales person.”
And for Feldberg’s business, the other seasons just weren’t delivering economically anymore. Not enough, at least, for a sprawling, year-round operation.
These days, there are really only two full-time employees, and they work countless hours. Bruce and his girlfriend, Kenya.
Feldberg is 60, a spry, sharp-as-ever 60. “But I wouldn’t mind slowing down some,” he said. “This is my passion and always will be,” he said, “but the amount of physical work necessary to stay open all year is almost staggering.”
Nursery customers don’t usually think about that. Feldberg sure did.
“It just made sense to scale back, sort through the kind of nursery I want to be today, for today’s generation. There are so many corporately branded flowers now, not to mention Lowe’s and Home Depot.
“I can’t have everything they have. But I can still grow what I sell, with superior quality, serve the community who knows about us and needs us, and make a living.”
Feldberg just doesn’t need to do that 12 months a year.
“I’ll still be here in January, believe me,” he said. “Getting ready for March. And I’ll be buying and designing for next year anytime now. I won’t take a lot of time off. I just won’t need to be here anywhere near as much for several months, after the Fourth of July comes.”
It’s a fluid, fast-moving market now, and Feldberg would like to be a little more nimble. He’d also like to scuba dive more. That’s right, this nurseryman is an ocean explorer, too. Costa Rica is one of Feldberg’s favorite places to dive. He’ll have a little more time soon to be beneath the waves.
The back story behind the 26-year history of Riverside Nursery is, of course, the owner. Those who come to peruse the nursery for a half-hour or hours at a time may see Feldberg; they may not. If they do, they see quickly he’s not from ’round these parts.
He’s from New Jersey originally, a tiny town called Old Bridge, to be precise. He had a lifelong love of growing and gardening, starting with what went on his mom’s windowsill. Once, he grew a sweet potato plant that framed the whole window.
He also admired and appreciated cacti, succulents and bromeliads as a boy. He became a student of flowers, shrubs and trees. Jade trees have been a particular, personal favorite. Feldberg’s had a collection of them– for his own enjoyment.
“You’re a creative guy,” a reporter said. “The nursery has been that outlet for you.”
“It’s true,” Feldman answered. “For so long now, here in Salem, I’ve been creating something from start to finish. I’ve always loved to do that. I’ve just always loved plants.”
But where did the seed come from that sent him to Salem? In New Jersey, Feldberg was an environmental engineer for a big chemical company in his late 20s and early 30s.
Then one day he was reading over a nursery trade journal. The Jobe Greenhouses property in Salem was for sale.
“I just had a feeling,” Feldberg said. “Don’t tell me why.”
But pretty soon he got in his car, headed south, and “I crossed over the low-water bridge in September, and the Roanoke River was absolutely, phenomenally beautiful. Then I pulled into this place.
“It was just waiting for me. What I’d been looking for. I knew what I wanted to do and where. It just took me a long time to find it.”
That little piece of beauty off the beaten path. It became Riverside Nursery, right here in Salem, with the hills watching over it.
It was time to ask one more time.
“So next spring, you are definitely going to be here, right? People are going to want to know.”
“I’ll be right here at Riverside,” Bruce Feldberg said. “Kenya, too.”
He said the spring flowers and spring tomatoes will be as good as ever. Good to know, because there’s a whole lot of folks in Salem and beyond who are counting on it.
It’s long been a vital Salem destination, a cavernous nursery that embraces the craft and the customer. As well, a dream vocation for a one-time northerner from Old Bridge, N.J.
The boy who knew what he wanted got what he wanted. No reason, Bruce Feldberg says, to stop doing something so special just yet.