Tony Avent runs two enterprises out of what was once a hardscrabble tobacco farm 20 minutes south of Raleigh, N.C. The first, Plant Delights Nursery, will this year ship 120,000 novel and pricey ornamental plants to garden enthusiasts across the United States.
Juniper Level Botanic Garden is his way of preserving the biodiversity of garden-worthy plants at risk of being lost. It is also a botanical smorgasbord assembled to sate the insatiable: one man’s appetite for plants.
Avent is one of the most enduring figures in the arcane world of elite horticulture, and his passion has found its way, plant by plant, into countless thousands of gardens across the country over the past 31 years. Avent himself has been at the center of a golden age of collector-growers selling to enthusiasts and connoisseurs, and his eventual exit from this prominent gardening stage will end a remarkable chapter in American horticulture.
That exit is not so far off. Last year, he and his wife, Anita, announced that they were donating the botanical garden to North Carolina State University and planned to phase out the nursery as a large-scale enterprise (garden members will have access to some plants). The Avents are raising money for an endowment before the transition.
Blunt, funny, charismatic and hewing to no cultural sensibility except his own, Avent cannot be counted on to make dreamy observations about his life’s work, or tell you that gardening provides a soulful connection to nature. “To have a garden like this is insane,” Avent drawls. “We should be in the nuthouse.”
What began as a two-acre escape from the city has grown into a 28-acre compound that encompasses two of his former homes, now used as offices, 30 greenhouses, a series of display gardens, and outlying fields where plants are trialed and grouped scientifically. The most recent madness is a rock garden made from 200 tons of recycled concrete.
Where the nursery operations begin and the botanical garden takes over is not that clear to the occasional visitor, but in a way that doesn’t matter. Together they form the culmination of one person’s vision — actually, obsession — with the help of a supporting cast that began with his first wife, Michelle, who died of breast cancer in 2012, and a mentor, Professor J.C. Raulston, as manically iconoclastic as Avent.
On a precociously hot day in May, Avent takes me on a golf cart tour past fields of arums, lycoris, trilliums, crinums, epimediums, colocasias, baptisias and gingers — the botany begins to blur after a few hours under the beating Carolina sun.
Most are winter-hardy, some are tender, some from arid regions, others from the jungle, some from the southeastern United States, others from Southeast Asia. Many are of species or hybrids yet to make it into the garden but holding valuable genetics, either in their own right or for use in breeding new plants.
Avent’s collecting trips have taken him to most East Asian countries, the Balkans, South Africa and Mexico. They have been driven by his need to break down the wall between botany, the scientific study of plants, and horticulture, the practice of growing them. Avent’s worldview can be summed up thus: Botanists don’t know how to grow plants, and gardeners have just scratched the surface of what’s out there.
Plant collectors tend to divide into generalists with broad interests and specialists with expertise in just a few plants. “What separates Tony from most folks is that he has that broad interest but a deep knowledge of multiple genera,” says John Dole, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C. State.
Avent attributes this to his wiring. He says he has both attention-deficit disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder and that, together, they have propelled his feats.
The mainstream nursery trade, funneling the same plants into every neighborhood, office park and public landscape, is notoriously cautious about introducing new plants. Niche nurseries are destined to be small and ultimately fleeting, but Avent has proved those stereotypes wrong. Observers credit this to not just his botanical expertise, but his marketing savvy as well. To have an Avent plant in your garden sets you apart. “You knew you had something better than anyone around you had,” says Richard Lighty , a longtime leading figure on the horticulture scene. “That one-upmanship was a big driving force” in Avent’s success, he says .
In its scope and in the cultish reach of its mail-order business, Avent’s enterprise is most closely comparable to Heronswood in Kingston, Wash., founded by Dan Hinkley and his partner, Robert Jones, around the same time as Plant Delights. Heronswood the nursery went out of business after its sale in 2000. The garden, neglected for years, was later bought and revived by a Native American tribe, the Port Gamble S’Klallam. Hinkley has returned as its director.
Today, you can find botanically minded nurseries selling rare plants online, but the scope is narrower, the scale of the business much smaller than Plant Delights’. Meanwhile, the synergy that Hinkley saw in the 1990s between rare plant nurseries and garden enthusiasts seems to have passed. “There was such energy in creating gardens and excelling in the craft,” he says. “We have all aged, and people coming behind us are much less interested in doing what we did.” (Hinkley and Avent took plant-collecting trips together to China and South Korea in the 1990s.)
Phil Normandy, a friend of Avent’s and fellow N.C. State horticulture grad, says the continuing success of Plant Delights indicates that there is still a formidable cadre of plant enthusiasts in this country. And that 21st-century bazaar called the Internet has in some ways assured that new devotees will remain connected to specialty growers, albeit at a much more granular level and without the scope of Plant Delights Nursery.
Avent seems as charged as ever, but even he recognizes that he can’t go on forever. Of life, he muses, “none of us is going to get out of this alive.”
I am most struck by the idea that Tony Avent, comfortable in his own skin but not in the world around him, used his unease to create a vehicle that would take him on an extraordinary life’s journey of discovery and accomplishment.
Avent grew up in a white, middle-class family in Raleigh. His parents were not green-thumbed, and both worked desk jobs in the state government. When he was 5, he got his parents to send off for mail-order plants and began to assemble them in terrariums and dish gardens. By the time he was 7, his father had built him a greenhouse. “I began growing plants for sale; we would have neighbors knocking on the door,” he says.
In high school, he was drawn to a small clique of other nerds and came to accept the bullying as normal. He says he fell out with his parents, now both deceased, over his desire to become a horticulturist. As he recounts it, they were set against it and wanted him to pursue a lucrative career as a doctor or lawyer. “I had to get out of there,” he says, referring to his family home. “This wasn’t a good environment for me.” In his last year in high school, he started taking horticulture classes at N.C. State. He met and married Michelle in college.
Avent’s plan after graduation was to move to Florida and start a nursery selling houseplants. But he found himself dragooned into a gentlemen’s garden club (“the average age was deceased”) and ended up volunteering his time cleaning up and weeding in the nearby state fairgrounds. This in turn led to his appointment as the fairgrounds landscape superintendent as a state Agriculture Department employee. Avent had seen how Raulston had created an arboretum virtually out of nothing at the university’s plant trial farm (now called the JC Raulston Arboretum), and this inspired him to copy the idea at the fairgrounds.
Most scientific gardens are fiercely protective of their plant collections, but Raulston allowed Avent to propagate cuttings of his plants. Avent began to transform grounds with a million annual visitors. “This was a very beat-up, hacked-down facility like many fairgrounds are, and he said, ‘This place could be beautiful,’ ” recalls Normandy, plant collections manager at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Md.
“My entire focus switched” from houseplants, says Avent. “It was like becoming a painter. I thought, wow, I can be an artist with a shovel.”
Avent also used the fairgrounds as a laboratory to study the behavioral responses of people to plants. As part of an annual flower show that coincided with the state fair, he grew banana plants, got them to fruit and stuck Chiquita labels on them, then retreated to observe the bemused reaction. Avent would yank a peanut plant out of the ground to show people where the nuts came from. He could see that if he turned plants into theater, there was an eager audience.
The local mass merchandiser was selling small azalea plants at bargain prices. Avent started an annual spring azalea sale of unusual varieties he had sourced and propagated. He made them irresistible by pointing out their superior traits and charged three times the going rate. At its height, the sale featured 165 varieties, and folks were driving from neighboring states to obtain them.
The obvious progression was for Avent to put his energy and invention into his own business. This required the Avents to sell their little home in the city and move to a place with some space. The property they found — in an erstwhile hamlet named Juniper Level — had a comfortable suburban house on more than two acres. Because he was asking Michelle to go along with his obsession, “I said, ‘You find the house you want, and if I can get a shovel in the ground, we’ll buy it.’ ” Avent went uncharacteristically quiet for a moment. “She sacrificed so much for me.”
The land was not ideal for a nursery. It was silty loam and had been farmed out from years of chemical-dependent tobacco cultivation. There was no buried treasure but a good amount of buried trash. Beneath the loam sat 3½ feet of hard red clay, and below that was the remnant of a petrified forest.
For the first four years, Avent kept his day job, kick-starting the nursery with $5,000 in proceeds from his house sale. At lunchtimes he would get a load of leaf compost to take home. After dinner each night, he worked in the areas around the house, creating plant beds with the compost and building a fountain feature out of bartered stone to provide a sound barrier between the house and the nearby road.
In the early 1990s he and Michelle quit their jobs to run the nursery full time. “It was a pressure cooker building so fast, we had to take the lid off,” he says. Raulston brought Avent choice plants to propagate and sell. “J.C. was the first person out here, and he said, ‘Please tell me you didn’t quit your day job. There’s no way you can make money with a mail-order specialty nursery.’ ”
Avent takes me through the botanical garden, pointing out plants that lend insight into his horticultural interests and marketing impulses. A ginger from Japan, named Zingiber mioga, forms a striking clump of lance-leafed variegated foliage and is, surprisingly, winter-hardy. This is not to be confused with the hardy ginger named Asarum, of which Avent offers five Asian species.
The aspidistra is remembered as a foolproof potted plant for the gloomiest Victorian parlor, but Avent has brought aspidistras out into the garden as scientists have introduced them to the West. When Avent started out, there were just 12 recognized species of aspidistra. Now there are more than 100, of which he raises 180 cultivars. It is this questing for uncommon or previously unknown species, and their evaluation as garden-hardy and garden-worthy, that has fueled much of Avent’s catalogue offerings and, especially, his botanical garden collections. Along the way, Avent has learned to ignore the conventional wisdom about plant hardiness or growing conditions and won’t write off a plant unless he has killed specimens at least three times. “He’s hyper-aware of what all the plants are doing,” says Mark Weathington, director of the Raulston Arboretum. “He’s willing to make mistakes.”
The native mayapple is a familiar woodland sight, but Avent sells a number of Asian varieties that, unlike the indigenous species, don’t slink away in the heat of summer. They are extravagantly and bizarrely patterned. Of a variety named Galaxy, he writes in the catalogue: “We recommend keeping duct tape on hand during garden tours to keep garden visitors’ tongues from falling out.”
In explaining the utility of plant collecting for the gardener, he points out a clump of Southern maidenhair fern, a species not considered hardy in northern states. Avent found a colony of the same plant in South Dakota, a find that could increase the garden range of this plant.
In time, Avent became a well-known champion of off-the-wall plants with no obvious commonality except for his belief that connoisseurs would want them. These included aroids as diverse as the beautifully colored Japanese jack-in-the-pulpit and the corpse flower, a gigantic stinking plant from Sumatra whose blooming has become a crowd-pulling event in botanical gardens around the world. Avent helped to fund the collecting trips of James Symon, a San Francisco physician who brought seeds to the West before his death in 1995.
Avent has also focused on the leafy tropical colocasia, known to gardeners as elephant ears and to devotees of Asian cuisine as taro. Avent came across a taro breeder in Hawaii, John Cho, and worked with him to produce new ornamental varieties from his stock, including strikingly black-leafed versions. He was thinking of naming one “Exxon Valdez” but thought better of it.
He and a team that includes botanical garden supervisor Jeremy Schmidt have collected trilliums new to science. “We have 14 new species that have never been described, and all found within 200 miles of our nursery,” he says. “That’s pretty nuts.”
Avent is such an unusually driven guy that there is no doubt he would have made his mark alone, but it is evident too that Raulston was a key influence. (Raulston died in a car accident in 1996.) Avent says one vital lesson was that “collecting is not the end point. The end point is to propagate and share.”
It was the lingering influence of Raulston and the connection to the arboretum now bearing his name that nudged Tony and Michelle Avent, who were childless, to think about donating the botanical garden to the university. Anita has taken up the cause with enthusiasm and got the legal mechanisms started for the transfer, Avent says. He says one of Raulston’s abiding messages was that nursery owners should make a profit only when they close their business and sell the land, preferably to a fat-cat developer.
What is obviously more important to Avent is that he has found a mechanism to preserve his life’s work. A garden without a gardener soon declines. “Much as he seems extroverted,” says Dole, “I think he’s probably most comfortable walking in the garden and enjoying the plants.”
The donation of the botanical garden as a partner to Raulston’s arboretum is perhaps for Avent a way of acknowledging the importance of Raulston in his life. “Over time I have begun to think of them as an extension of each other,” says Bobby Ward, a plant biologist who wrote a biography of Raulston. “Having this idea of turning [the botanical garden] over to the university seems like a logical progression of that.”
Avent draws a certain pleasure at demonstrating that his mentor was incorrect on a couple of fronts: that he could not make a specialty mail-order nursery viable, and that the ultimate aim of nursery owners is to cash in their land. “To this day,” says Avent, “I’m still trying to prove J.C. wrong.”
Higgins will host a live Q&A on all things gardening Thursday at noon. Submit your questions here.
Adrian Higgins is the gardening columnist for The Washington Post.
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