Friday, March 13, 2009

Tony Avent: the Howard Stern of horticulture?

This past week I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Tony Avent, founder of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina. Tony is a renowned and dedicated plantsman who, like many of us plant geeks, is fueled and fascinated by the odd, the dangerous, the bizarre, and the gorgeous. Relentless and unapologetic in the garden, Tony waves his hand at hardiness zones, adventurously daring to plant, and grow, the unthinkable. With 18,000 plants and counting in his collection, Tony's botanic garden in Raleigh is the 4th largest in the nation, and is neighbored by some of the best gardens in the country: JC Raulston Arboretum, Duke Gardens, and the UNC garden at Chapel Hill. Tony's sweet tea timbre only enhances the enthusiasm he has for the plants he loves. And his humor? Who hasn't seen the provocative and hysterical covers of his famous mail-order catalogs? Well, for those of you who haven't, take a look at the latest:

Oh, and there's more!!! Instead of wasting time on YouTube and Facebook, scroll through the hate mail that Tony receives regarding his catalog, and that he unashamedly shares. Now that's a guy with character. 

So how did this happen? My friend Darrin Duling organized two lectures at the Garden Education Center of Greenwich, CT where this event was graciously hosted. We heard Tony advocate his most notable plants suited for Connecticut gardens on Tuesday evening, and vicariously journeyed with him on his plant explorations on Wednesday, where Tony explained the process of how plants go from the wild into your hands.

Oh it sounds just lovely doesn't it? Let me break the still water with this:

We horticulturists are dirty, there's no other way to say it. We gladly live in a world dominated by loose and promiscuous pollen, where flowers seduce insects making them drunk on their juices, and where plants engage in acts of bondage then slowly swallow their partners, where ovaries swell with the seed of another, and . . . 

Anaïs Nin or Nature?  Maybe a little of both. Either way, Tony Avent is one of us. Just as Howard Stern is a pundit on pornography, Tony turns up the heat describing new plants and hybrids in such a way that plant sex has never sounded so good, so natural, so right.

I think after spending a few hours with Tony, the crisply coiffed chatelaine's of Connecticut have been deflowered of the gentility of gardening.  While they may never admit that they furtively look at plants online, or that they might keep a few catalogs in their nightstand drawer, the facade has been breached!

What could be better than hearing Tony burst about 'late night rendezvous under the cover of darkness', and the morning-after shock of a night of 'wild plant sex'? If you're into hardcore plant sex as much as I am, you'll know that Baptisia 'Purple Smoke' was soooo worth it (and she's disease-free)!  

It wasn't all hanky-panky, though.  Tony brought to light some poignant perspectives on plants, gardening, and the world as we know it.

Let's begin at the end. Tony let out a few great closing remarks that I thought were important to share:

"If you are not killing plants, you are not growing as a gardener."- Tony, quoting  J.C. Raulston. Tony says he won't give up on growing a plant unless he has killed it at least three times. The lesson here is don't be discouraged by your garden failures. The epiphanies learned in a garden cannot be taught in a book.  So go, kill your plants; find out what works to keep them alive and thriving. 

"Plants don't always grow best where they are found in the wild". This next example is a bit of a shocker. Sarracenia sp./pitcher plant. Typically pigeon-holed as a "bog" plant, Tony has somehow realized that they flourish in his mixed borders, even under his peach trees. WHAT? Yeah. Peach trees. Basically, just because a plant is found growing happily in a ditch (or a bog), doesn't mean that it won't reward you for moving it and providing it with a few different variables. Don't think (I don't commonly suggest this): just DO. Throw the plant tag away, and experiment! If you lose the plant, refer to the above quote.

"You do not learn duplicating what you already know." Priceless. This is permission to be creative, try the absurd, challenge the book-logic, and GROW: as a gardener, as a person, as a creative force. For further clarification, refer to the above two quotes.

"Gardens are about anticipation." This I relate to 100%. Every day now I go outside and silently beg my Crocus 'Jeanne d'Arc' to hurry up. Classical music calls them 'movements', and the garden equivalent is something I call 'moments'. A garden is a relentless crescendo of moments that is planned and planted for in anticipation of the unfolding drama in the season to come.

A theme through both lectures was plant origin. Whether a natural hybrid, a selection from an intensive breeding program, a chance seedling, or a cutting from a foreign plant, the question that Tony invariably knows the answer to is: who's your Daddy? Origin in terms of "how did this this plant get into my car", Tony uncovered some interesting criteria a plant must meet to survive in the nursery industry. 

Overall, I was privileged to listen to Tony's adventures, and to be introduced to some of his favorite plants. I was fascinated by his extensive knowledge of breeding and plant parentage, and his experience in this industry that spans many, many years. 

Please visit the Plant Delights Nursery page to read up on Tony's many plant collecting excursions, and articles.  Also, while you're there, sign up for the email updates. Oh! And of course, lose yourself in the pages, pictures, and descriptions of the odd, the bizarre, the dangerous, and the gorgeous.

Darrin, thanks so much for giving me the head's up about Tony coming into town. And to Tony, I genuinely look forward to seeing your garden soon.


  1. Wow, very well written summary of Tony Avent's valuable perspective on growing plants!

  2. Why, thank you! Tony was easy to write about, perhaps because I relate to his perspective -- he loves what he does, and that allows him to have fun with it. Thanks so much for reading, and please return! Cheers, E.