Plants, plans, and advice
By Marian St. Clair
Tony Avent, founder and proprietor of Juniper Level Botanic Garden in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the world-renowned mail-order nursery, Plant Delights, shares the story of his extraordinary passion for plants, along with his plans for the future and advice for today’s gardeners.
Q. What sparked your interest in plants?
A. I think some of us come prewired and are lucky enough to figure out that wiring early on. I was making and selling terrariums when I was 5 years old. When I was 7, my parents built me a greenhouse and I spent all my time there and in the woods studying plants. I’ve never been a very social person and would much rather be around plants, especially when I was young. My father was also a gardener; he hybridized Iris. Our gardening styles were very different, but I’m sure there was some genetic influence there.
Q. During your horticulture studies at North Carolina State, did you have a mentor or someone who influenced your career in horticulture?
A. Oh my goodness, yes, several. The biggest influences were the two JCs. People don’t realize there were two very famous men there named JC. The first was JC Taylor, manager of the NC State greenhouses. My first job in horticulture was working for him. I had started out in houseplants with the greenhouse my parents built, that was my first love. We became very close and I learned so much. Then JC Raulston came while I was a student and that’s when I become interested in outdoor plants. He was a very good friend for many years and a big influence.
Q. One early job included working as landscape director for the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. How did this experience inspire and impact the work you do today?
A. While I was still in school, a member of the local men’s garden club called and said the fairgrounds needed help planting shrubs, but their members were too old, so they nominated me. The shrubs had been bedded down in sawdust and were knee-deep in weeds. I spent several days cleaning them up to be moved and the assistant manager, who said he was really impressed, offered me a full-time job at $4.25 an hour, double what I was making. I had six months left in school, but was able to start part time. I spent 16 years there and learned everything from carpentry to plumbing and running heavy equipment – it was just an amazing time.
Q. You’re also well known for your plant breeding programs, especially with Hosta and other shade-loving perennials. What are the rewards of these efforts?
A. A friend here in Raleigh was the president of the American Hosta Society and I spent a lot of time over there learning how to combine this and that. A lot of people were breeding hostas, so we started giving our plants humorous names. If you’re like everyone else, it’s hard to get a toehold, so we gave them silly names like ‘Bubba’ and ‘Outhouse Delight’, and that really drew a lot of people. Now we breed quite a few things. Baptisia have become very big for us and we are probably the only breeders of Arisaema in the country. Our dedication is to improving plants and improving horticulture for everyone. For example, years ago we realized Agave would cross with our native Manfreda, a little rubbery-leafed perennial, and then handed off the project to a breeder at one of the largest perennial growers in the country because we saw the potential. Now, he’s taken it and run with it, introducing more than 20 different plants called “mangaves.” Basically, we’ve created a whole new category of plants.
Q. You are also a seasoned plant hunter with more than 60 expeditions under your belt. Is finding plants essential to the goal of improving plants and horticulture?
A. Absolutely, because if you believe that climate is changing and you want to preserve a plant, the worst thing you can do is leave it where it exists. Plants aren’t like animals; they can’t get up and move. So we have to find, propagate, and grow them. And we believe that you should disperse those plants as far and wide as you can, because the chance is better that you will find a climate they thrive in. Ex situ conservation – conservation out of the original site – is the best way to preserve plants for the future of mankind.
Q. What do you see as the future for Plant Delights and Juniper Level Botanic Garden?
A. The mail-order nursery is a funding tool for our research, but it is not why we exist. Our number-one goal is to be a full-time botanic garden and research facility. Right now, we have a little more than 23,000 taxa. Cancer researchers have spent a week here taking samples and there are other things happening behind the scenes that people don’t know. We’ve begun an endowment for the transition and will have a big announcement in the spring.
Q. You’ve been featured in every form of media and often speak at gardening events. What is the essential message you’d like to share with gardeners?
A. First, biodiversity is key. We embrace biodiversity when it comes to people, but in terms of plants, it’s the exact opposite – we limit our landscapes to 10 boring plants, as opposed to creating a wonderful biodiversity that would bring in more animals, more birds, and more insects. The second is plant health and sustainability. The number-one chemical we use in the garden is nitrogen, but microbes in the soil can pull nitrogen out of the air and hand it to the plants. Instead, we put out salt-based fertilizers that kill the microbes. It’s insane. We have to get away from this idea of better living through chemicals and back to organic soil nutrition.
Q. Finally, what important advice do you have for new gardeners?
A. Visit your local botanic gardens; visit and learn so you can see what plants do. Embrace plants, celebrate plants, and shop local whenever you can.
Visit Plant Delights and Juniper Level Botanic Garden online here.