HINTON, W.Va. -- The success of owning a garden center/landscape business depends on the whims of Mother Nature -- sun, rain, soil and such can be the life or death of the venture. Add clinging to the bank of the longest undammed river on the East Coast, and you've got Groundworks Nursery in Hinton.
Chris and Torula Chanlett-Avery have been growing, planting and selling annuals, herbs, vegetables, perennials, shrubs and trees since 1984, when Chris, now 63, was a self-described "hippie with a pickup truck."
He's now on his fifth truck, and he and wife Torula, 59, have built a thriving business complete with a garden center in an unlikely spot along busy W.Va. 3 in Summers County.
"When we built, there were 7,000 cars passing here each day," Chris said. "Now it's probably 10,000. We have a lot of repeat business, business from second-home people who have vacation homes nearby. We also sell to people who are from Huntington or Charleston and just in the area."
Someone from the nursery travels to the Lewisburg Farmers' Market each week, and while they don't sell a lot of items at the market, they make many valuable contacts that lead to jobs at The Greenbrier resort and throughout the area.
The early landscaping business grew from the couple's love of the land that brought them to West Virginia.
"We were part of the homesteader movement," Torula said. "We moved here to live on the land. We lived sustainably, grew wheat, everything we ate."
They lived communally with others and with their daughter, Emma, who was 6 months old at the time. They had another daughter, Sadie, three years later. Both girls went to Summers County High School; Emma went on to Amherst and Columbia and now works for the Library of Congress as a congressional researcher. Sadie went to Bryn Mawr College and lives in Oakland, Calif., and is the in-house yogi at Clif Bar & Co., a maker of natural energy foods and drinks.
Avid kayakers and canoeists, the couple has become involved in the preservation of the rivers they love. Chris is president of the organization Friends of the Lower Greenbrier River Watershed. He grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., the son of a college professor, and Torula was born on Long Island and was raised in the D.C. area.
Both of their parents had engineering backgrounds, and Torula credits their own design sense to growing up in that environment. They designed and built the structures that contain the garden center.
The sliver of land between the highway and the river on which the nursery is built had two trailers on it back in 1996 when the Greenbrier River flooded to a record high, and the trailers were washed away. The couple had to get approval from FEMA before they could construct their buildings in 1998; those structures are built to withstand high water, with deep pilings, removable doors and windows and washable natural materials.
"We are four miles from the mouth of the Greenbrier, so we get about a day's notice when there's a chance of flooding," Chris explained. The flood season is between November and March, when the garden center is shut down, so there hasn't been much loss from rising waters.
Inside the garden center's main building, there are lines drawn on the walls marking flood water levels. The "hoop houses," where they grow their plants, are closer to the highway on higher ground. Torula said the main loss during the worst flood was the gravel parking lot that washed down the bank.
"But after that flood, we laid out the garden center in a more efficient manner, so something positive came from it," she added.
Water for the plants comes from two wells, and many of the shade plants are displayed under a large bank of trees along the parking area.