The enduring garden

Features - Cover Story

Tony Avent forged a plan with the JC Raulston Arboretum to ensure his vast plant collection, breeding program lasts for generations.

July 10, 2019

Courtney Potter Photography
Anita and Tony Avent have made preparations to gift their Juniper Level Botanic Garden (JLBC) to North Carolina State University’s JC Raulston Arboretum. The gift will allow Tony’s massive collection of plants and germplasm to remain in the trade and the marketplace. Mark Weathington, director of the JC Raulston Arboretum says the JLBC “is not just a collection of plants. It’s taxonomy. It’s breeding. It’s education.” The JLBC is home to one of the world’s top agave collections. Tony’s breeding efforts also brought x Mangave to the marketplace (pictured), which is a cross between Agave and Manfreda.

More than a decade before Tony Avent opened Plant Delights Nursery in 1988, he’d found a kindred spirit in J.C. Raulston at North Carolina State University. Tony started as a student of horticulture there the same year J.C. became a professor and researcher, charged with starting a university arboretum. Tony’s college professor eventually became his mentor, collaborator and friend when immediately after graduation he landed a job at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. It was fortuitously located across the street from the arboretum that now bears J.C.’s name.

“I would propagate everything at the arboretum and plant it at the fairgrounds,” Tony recalls. “Our connection has always been very tight.”

There was a common denominator that drew the pair together – sharing. Over the years they shared plants, from ones found in Raleigh to those found on the other side of the globe; knowledge, such as how plants are propagated and produced; curiosity about whether something would survive in their zone – Tony says J.C. “didn’t believe anything that was written down until he tried it himself”; and a profound ambition to spread awareness about horticulture.

That bond only grew stronger as Tony and his late wife Michelle opened Plant Delights Nursery in 1988.

“J.C. was such an incredible influence,” Tony says.

A garden for the ages

Besides the mail-order nursery, Tony also developed the Juniper Level Botanic Garden (JLBG), a 28-acre, not-for-profit educational, research and display garden. JLBG merges the worlds of botany and horticulture, Tony says, “something J.C. was masterful at doing. He connected people with plants and information.”

As Tony amassed an impressive collection of plants and germplasm, he started thinking he’d eventually leave it all to the university’s arboretum.

“My late wife and I put in our wills that we would give this land to the arboretum, but we never told anyone at the university,” he says.

His mission continued. He trekked across every terrain imaginable looking for perennials. He introduced more unusual plants to the trade and the public.

“Our mission has always been to find rare plants and make sure they’re not stuck in one site, to propagate them and to ship them all over the world. This is ex-situ conservation,” he says. “Plants require our help to keep them from going extinct. It’s irresponsible for people to not allow the propagation of rare plants. Some botanic gardens don’t share plants. They keep everything among their researchers.

“That was the old-fashioned model, and when J.C. started at the arboretum, the other gardens didn’t like him sharing plants. J.C. felt terrible if he was the only one who had a particular plant, and we share J.C.’s philosophy.”

Tony is pleased that Mark Weathington, who’s been at the helm of the JC Raulston Arboretum for almost five years, has preserved much of J.C.’s philosophy and vision. And Mark says he learns from Tony’s unconventional ways.

“Tony doesn’t think like other people. He’s not constrained by the way things are done,” Mark explains. “We have lots of conversations when I walk away and think, ‘Well why do I always do it that way?’”

Anita established the Center for Mindfulness and Nonduality at Juniper Level Botanic Gardens in 2013. The pair were
married in the garden that same year.

From idea to implementation

Tony turns 62 this year. He’s now remarried and says if he’s “lucky enough to make it to 70, I’d prefer not to run a mail-order nursery.”

That doesn’t mean he’s lost his spark for perennials, plant expeditions and propagation.

“I want to still breed plants, but I also want to pull weeds and get out and garden,” he adds.

Tony and his wife Anita agreed that the land should still be gifted to the JC Raulston Arboretum, which prompted him to finally approach the university with this plan he’d crafted so many years ago.

Plants are put through a rigorous trial period before being offered for sale through Plant Delights Nursery.

“We’ve always done joint projects with the arboretum and I always felt like we were sister institutions,” he says. “So, I ran it all the way up to the chancellor, who happens to be a plant guy.”

University officials told Tony they didn’t have the funding to run JLBG, but they had a solution in the form of an endowment. The JC Raulston Arboretum operates through the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation, a non-profit, charitable and educational corporation that support agricultural research, extension and teaching activities in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NCSU. An endowment was set up through the foundation, which allows the arboretum to accept donations, fundraise and manage the process.

“The endowment helps make sure there is adequate funding and preparation to preserve the genetics,” Tony says. “I worked with Mark to come up with a budget. It took us two years to get through the planning process to make sure our vision is honored.”

Our mission has always been to find rare plants and make sure they’re not stuck in one site.”

The fundraising efforts began in January with both parties networking for donors.

“Fundraising is a process. It takes multiple conversations,” Mark says. “We can’t cannibalize the JC Raulston Arboretum’s fundraising efforts, so our goal is to expand the donor list for both the garden and the arboretum.”

New plants, new opportunities

The agreement between Tony and the arboretum will impact the nursery, greenhouse and garden center supply chain. It will allow the introduction of new genetics and access to years of research and development.

“New genetics is where you get your breakthroughs,” Tony says. “We ask, ‘What can this set of new genetics add to what we already have in the market?’ We look at it from a botanic garden point of view, a breeder point of view and a nursery point of view. We’ve introduced about 1,000 cultivars and only protected about five or six plants out of all of those introductions.”

Growers should think of Tony’s nursery and botanic garden as a “free R&D facility,” he says.

Courtney Potter Photography

“Our collaboration with Walters Gardens and Proven Winners is about five years in. The Mangave collection wouldn’t have happened without us,” Tony adds. “We share plants with wholesale nurseries just like J.C. did.”

It’s hard to whittle down into a simple explanation why this partnership is important to the green industry, Mark says.

“The lifeblood of the industry is new plants and you get new plants by bringing new genetics to plant breeding,” Mark says. “The conservation and research value is tremendous because he has one of the largest plant collections in the world – it’s got to be in the top 10 globally. When we add another 25,000 plants from Tony to our collection, that’s just more opportunities for growers to get scion wood or seed.”

Courtney Potter Photography

The research arm of this new partnership will have a lasting impact, Mark says.

“I’m in public horticulture because I believe plants make a difference. Research is critical. It’s not so much what’s happening here in our facilities, but what information and plants get out to other. We’ll be breeding for wildlife, for food, for medicine, for conservation and so much more,” Mark adds.

J.C.’s mission to propagate, share, research and teach lives on at the arboretum.

“Our two organizations have dovetailed. It was meant to be,” Tony says.

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