Salem garden store to reopen with new name, family tie

Salem -In the greenhouses located just off Route 85, workers are putting the finishing touches on tables that will soon hold a broad selection of plants for sale.

The landscaping business that has operated here for nearly three decades will be opening again on March 23 under the name Burnett's Country Gardens.

The buildings and logo will look familiar to returning customers, but the owner is new. Todd Burnett, whose parents David and Cheryl first opened the garden center as Salem Country Gardens in 1983, bought the property in a foreclosure auction last year.

The Burnetts sold the company in 1998, and it went through a series of owners before it was foreclosed upon for non-payment of real estate taxes.

Working with the Burnett family "was and is the best time of my life," said Heather Thibeault, Todd Burnett's marketing coordinator. She was one of a "dream team" of David and Cheryl's employees that came back to work with their son.

"The Burnett family … when someone wants to work and is willing to learn, they encourage it," said Thibeault.

The younger Burnett, who remembers clearing the garden lot of rocks with his friends as a kid, doesn't plan to make any radical changes. But he does hope to put a "more modern spin" on the business.

The marketing strategy showcases the more contemporary feel: Burnett's Country Gardens is getting out the word about its opening through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest.

The company is also in the process of developing new features, such as a Saturday farmers' market and a customer loyalty program called Bloomy Bucks.

One of Burnett's priorities is to stock Burnett's Country Gardens with as many locally grown plants as possible. He will grow some on site and will carry perennials from Franklin and shrubs and trees from Lebanon.

One major supplier will be his own 85-acre farm in Canterbury, which distributes to wholesale customers in New England and New York.

Burnett, who earned a degree in ornamental horticulture from the University of Connecticut after learning hands-on from his parents, enjoys operating his wholesale farm but missed the interaction with retail customers.

"I love being outdoors and working with plants and people," he said. He grew up in Salem and purchased Burnett's Country Gardens because his "heritage is here."

There are only two weeks left until the opening day and Burnett still has a number of things to do before the site will be ready.

The blizzard in February almost caused the greenhouses to collapse, he said. He and his employees were able to save the structures, but they must replace the plastic they cut down in the process.

They will also need to finish setting up the new fixtures and computers systems, as well as bring in the inventory. Burnett said that he is still waiting for some deliveries.

Burnett will also need to decide what to do with the Habitat for Humanity ReStore area. That company, which sells used furniture and other items to benefit Habitat for Humanity, will be moving to a new location in May.

Thibeault recalls that the Burnetts always had something going on at Salem Country Gardens - in addition to inviting famous garden speakers, they held hay rides and brought in real reindeer one winter.

Their son is headed in the same direction. Burnett's Country Gardens has a full calendar of events, starting just a week after the store's soft opening.

The theme of the March 30 event is "A spring of new beginnings," and it will feature a scavenger hunt for children in lieu of the familiar Easter egg hunt.

The garden center will also play host to a number of baby animals for the day: goats, alpacas, bunnies, chicks and ducks will be visiting from local farms.

A grand opening is scheduled for just over a month later, the weekend of May 4 and 5. 97.7 FM WCTY, a Norwich-based country music station, will be doing a live radio show, and the garden center's vendors will be displaying their products throughout the property.

The Salem Fire Department will hold demonstrations of their fire trucks and will be sponsoring a lunch fundraiser for a local girl with leukemia. The Salem Cub Scouts will also be holding a lunch to raise money for their pack.

The garden center is "big on promoting other small businesses" and developing a relationship with them, said Thibeault, and their events were designed with this in mind.

On Mother's Day, a busy day for the garden center, they will partner with the Jewett City company Extreme Cakes by Heather to offer mini-cupcakes alongside their flowers.

Thibeault described Extreme Cakes by Heather's products as "beautiful, beautiful stuff," and hopes to offer one-stop Mother's Day shopping to "make people more comfortable."

The day before Father's Day, a representative from Maple Brook Forge in Coventry will be on hand to sharpen knives and tools.

Events, workshops and seminars will be announced on Burnett's Country Gardens' website, burnettscg.com, which will launch soon.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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