Greg and Debbie Miller are not the first, and will not be the last, Virginia Tech grads to have arrived in the New River Valley for college and stayed for life. He grew up near Ashland, Va., and came to major in business management. Debbie spent much of her childhood outdoors in Isle of Wight County and attended VT for her horticulture degree. Both graduated in the ’70s with no desire to leave.
Greg and his brother, Jeff, purchased Laurel Creek Nursery from the founders, and Debbie got her first job out of college managing the retail garden center. She and Greg married in 1981 and built their contemporary passive solar house the same year in a field on six acres. While Jeff stayed on with the retail, landscaping and flower aspects of the business, Greg branched off to raise big ornamental trees and evergreens on a large scale. Their property now encompasses 130 acres, most of it devoted to trees, and they own land elsewhere in the NRV for growing trees.
Debbie stayed with the nursery for 14 years managing the retail arm and working as a landscape designer. Her passion is gardens, and she readily quips: “Everyone can have a beautiful garden; even one window box will bring daily enjoyment.” Back then, landscaping was fairly simple with trees, shrubs and some flower beds. “Perennial gardens are especially tedious to design,” she reveals, “and when adding waterfalls, rock gardens and ponds, it is important that they are somewhat deer proof and sustainable.” However, as the years unfolded, landscaping evolved into a significant design industry with increased hardscaping and elaborate outdoor living spaces that should fit comfortably into the space and architecture.
If their property is any measure of Debbie’s talent and experience, then she ranks at the top of her game. Their beautiful house is now shaded with gigantic oak trees, beeches, ginkgos, spruces and maples, and the gardens are stunning. “We created the garden in the middle of a field, and it is similar to Gertrude Jekyll’s vision of expansive perennial borders. There is always something in bloom from February to November,” Debbie states.
Jekyll [1843-1932] was a British artist, writer and garden designer who approached gardening with bold color and artistic arrangement which may have been influenced by impressionism. There is speculation that poor eyesight curbed her art career, and garden design then fulfilled her creative mind. “She totally upended the British formal garden into long, sweeping, natural looking perennial borders,” Debbie adds.
The perennial border is very beautiful, in large part because it has been designed not to be appealing to deer. Black-eyed Susans, sedums, Siberian iris, Shasta daisies, tall phlox and countless other flowers of varying colors, heights and textures grace the property, winding around the lawn as well as around the house. Greg built the stone walls, and Debbie has crafted enchanting spaces to relax and entertain, and she continues to enjoy being outside. If she desires new walking trails, she pulls out the tractor and bush hog and makes them herself.
The home’s entry foyer leads into a gorgeous open kitchen and family room with large glass doors to the solarium. Soft, tranquil, aquamarine walls, white trim, quartz counters and high ceilings create an inviting aura, replete with a 2-layer coconut cake under glass. “Our kids enjoy cooking, so we can all gather and prepare meals together when they visit,” Debbie says of their four grown sons and daughters who have departed the New River Valley for careers of their own.
The south-facing solarium that looks out over the gardens and meadow may be Debbie’s favorite place inside. And Gracie’s, too. The exuberant 10-year-old Golden Retriever has a bed and toys at one end, and there’s a round glass and rattan table at the other end. In between are several cozy conversation spots and comfy cushioned chairs for reading, relaxing or chatting.
A formal dining room is furnished with classic mahogany table, chairs and china hutch, and a charming library to the left has that cozy lived-in look. It opens to a porcelain floor patio they use often for outdoor dining. “I like the porcelain for its wood look and skid proof texture,” Debbie points out. “Also, it does not change color or get darker when it rains and doesn’t compete with the stone retaining walls and rock garden.”
The 4,200-square foot home was expanded in 1992 from three bedrooms to five when Debbie left the [plant] nursery to double the family kid size with a different nursery. They had two children when she became pregnant with twins. After they arrived, Debbie engaged in her own professional landscape design business where she could work from home while serving her family of six.
Gorgeous oak floors, beams, stone fireplaces – one in the sitting area off the kitchen and one in the library – and lovely art pieces create a natural warmth, complemented by Debbie and Greg’s personalities and Gracie’s fun-loving spirit. It is an elegant home tempered with natural materials, soft leather furnishings and a distinctive country allure.
The Millers later built a freestanding 3-car garage with space over it used for storage, though it could be an apartment. Her organic garden beyond the garage is fenced from deer, rabbits and other veggie-loving critters and yields tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peas, beans, cabbage, broccoli, garlic and greens of all types.
The privacy of this home sanctuary and tree farm is cherished, yet Debbie has always enjoyed the fact that she can be in town in a matter of minutes. Combining their passions for gardens, trees, landscaping, entrepreneurship, family life and a rural lifestyle keeps Greg and Debbie Miller rooted in the New River Valley. Exactly where they want to be.
Text by Joanne M. Anderson
Photos by Kristie Lea Photography