April 19, 2017

A Visit to Plant Delights Nursery

I've been ordering from Tony Avent's Plant Delights Nursery since it's early years - dare I say perhaps since the mid 1990's when the catalog was still being printed in just green ink (without photos). In many ways, it taught me to look things up (before the Internet) and thus, learn not unlike the original Heronswood Nursery catalogs did.

Tony Avent overlooks a range of hoop houses in another section on the property where propagation occurs. Every spare space us used, and planted with trial plants to observe how they might grow in various conditions.

I am a huge fan of Tony's efforts, and jumped at the opportunity when my friend Bobby Ward a well known plantsman and author himself (author of Chlorophyll in his Veins - J.C. Raulston Horticultural Ambassador). Indeed, there is a spirit in Raleigh, NC were in this land of the late J.C. Raulston, knowledgable plant people just congregate. Bobby offered to drive me down to the Juniper Level Botanic Garden from the J.C. Raulston Arboretum where I was speaking this weekend to see exactly what delights where being cultivated by Tony Avent.

I had no idea what I was about to see.

Tony is trialing Linum lewisii, and was even impressed when we came upon this display in a berm. The entire motif was more Arizona than North Carolina.

I was warned that I probably would not be able to buy plants while there. So even though I had made the decision to drive down from Massachusetts (as I was speaking at the J.C. Rauslton Arboretum), I also thought - silly me, that I could stop in and shop at Plant Delights -- that it was like an ordinary garden center or something. My bad. As Joseph Tychonievitch told me a couple of weeks ago while staying here - "You know, Plant Delights isn't open to the public and you won't be able to shop around unless it is an open house weekend. But you'll want to order plants once you leave!"

Even more grow houses in another part of the garden. I peaked into one - dare-I-say: Podophyllum?

My experience with plant nurseries is probably much like yours -  a vision of often unattractive hoop houses, more likely that of old weathered wood, rusty expanded metal, concrete blocks, poly-filmy-shade cloth, the scent of cat pee, maybe even raccoons - you get it - a general air of untidiness - it just comes with the territory. The American nursery scene isn't quite the Lord & Burnham wood and glass greenhouse ranges of the past, and unless one visits an upscale 'designed' garden center Ala Terrain or Snug Harbor, the romance of the independent greenhouse retail experience is over.

That is, unless you visit Plant Delights Nursery, just south off Raleigh, North Carolina. Located about a half hour out of the city on a rural stretch of road where Bobby Ward explained to me with much detail, where the "Piedmont transitions into the coastal plain", or in layman terms, where the red clay dirt turns into sand, you can find the specialist nursery known to so many plant enthusiasts known simply as Plant Delights.

So, here is what struck me first - not the neatness as much as that for a nursery not open to the public, the parking lot was full of cars. Either Mr. Tychonievitch played a cruel trick on me, or these were vehicles for all the workers here.  The later was true thankfully, and as we stepped out of the car I noticed the range of hoop houses that extended in every direction - there had to be 30 or more, and each one so symmetrical -  perfectly encased with metallic foil material or mesh shade cloth making them look like tight foil-wrapped burritos from the local Chipotle.

Another trial field, with labels indicating the source, provenance and name of countless varieties of plants yet to appear in future catalogs.

Plant Delights is Much Bigger than I imagined

Then this is what struck me - the enormity of it all.  Plant Delights is huge. I suppose if I had the means, and had started a nursery 30 years ago when I should have in the Hinkleyesque era of Heronswood and Yucca Do that it might look -- like this (at least in my mind), but all I can say is that the catalog and webs site is misleading - to me - the branding and design guy - the guy who though that he really knew Plant Delights, who has ordered every year since the mid 1990's.

Habranthus species, crosses with other amaryllis and related genus. Genius. Something very important and innovative is happening here. 

Plant Delights is mysterious then. A bit of an odd place that still has a printed catalog that looks humble with its cartoon covers, sometimes edgy taste in words, descriptions and challenges the newbie with it's unique tone so unlike any big branded catalog. Visual design aside, even I - perhaps the most jaded by inadequate aesthetics can look past the man-eating plant characters and political landmines writing all just off as good-ol southern humor, to the amazing - yes - amazing plants. And I use the word amazing not in a 'bloggy' way. Really, really amazing plants. OK, Awesome plants.

Some will say expensive, perhaps some are, but to many of us, most of these plants are one-of-a-kind, field tested and selected by Tony and his staff, not by some buyer who cares more about manscaping than Mangave. So even though Plant Delight should be for everyone, it really isn't. Some will think it too expensive, the un-informed might be better shopping at their local garden shop, but for those who truly care and those who know, it's worth it.

How many nurseries start their own plants from seed? And how many are creating their own crosses today? Loved seeing this part of the business.

Innovation Happening. 

Universities and seed companies research, we know that,  yet few organizations, even most botanic gardens sad to say are able practice the type of research and development which is happening here.  Big biz research begins with a purpose and then often requires funding or grants to move forward.

Evaluation and critique here is more personal-- Tony isn't looking for a cure for cancer or to feed people in Africa - he's looking for the next interesting thing. Part artist, part inventor, part plantsman best defines Tony Avent. There might be plants nobody would ever notice or find beauty in except a real plant lover, while others some may find gaudy, others, must-have.

The Juniper Level Botanic Garden part of Plant Delights surrounds the growing fields, and in many areas, one can see both old and new plantings - setting the stage for a future more formal botanic garden someday.

Someone has to look for these things, to be able to have the luxury and means to bed out thousands of gladiolus or amaryllis species to see which one might be hardy, floriferous or special.  I mean - who is ever going to fund research to propagate an obscure yet remarkable Asarum collected in Taiwan with giant flowers nearly 4 inches across?

Yeah, that's why we have Plant Delights Nursery bookmarked.

Tony Avent shows me a very large Asarum nobleissimum "Crown Royal'  flowers as large as a mans hand.

The Impractical and Practical aspects of Plants as Product

Product development is often evaluated against practical opportunities like sales potential, the mass market appeal, a need, perhaps desire, beauty of a design,  whatever. But here, it's feels as if what really drives the research is curiosity - I mean, really - we don't know what we want until we see it.  The corporate part of the plant business might more practical questions - the have to.

Some of Tony's breeding with dwarf and mini hosta that he is trialing.

A mission or challenge for a plant breeder with commercial focus might be to find a certain color, or  a trait like an ever-blooming yet hardier daylily with the perfect height, that will bloom in a pot at retail but you and I know that somewhere out there, a habranthus that forms a mound and covers itself with flowers and is hardy in the North might emerge and could change everything -- someday. No one is going to fund, that. Surely, Tony is breeding for all markets, after-all, he is a businessman too, but one gets the sense that he likes both botanic rarity as well as profit.

The Japanese terrestrial orchid Calanthe looking mighty fine in the soil under the tall pines.

Plant invention then takes this synergy and support - that of independent plant breeders and collectors, folks to test, trial, evaluate and propagate, so the process depends on such independent 'studios' like Plant Delights Nursery, which can make these connections between people - who can market their discoveries, or improve upon them.

Another view of Asarum nobilissimum 'Crown Royal'

We inventors know that first it takes the luxury of time to make these connections, all this before the Post-It notes, a telephone or the next Magic Eraser is ever discovered. No one ever asked for those. (I never asked for a Magic Eraser though!).

I mean, who is going to even invest in  something as frivolous as a trillium that forms not three leaflets but a single one?

Plant Delights can, and does.

Gynandriris (Moraea) setifolia, a rare African iris relative known as the 'thread iris' which contains a cardiac glycoside which causes cardiac irregularity and sudden death (according to the medical free dictionary!). Probably good that I didn't steal it.

One of the most exciting gardens at Plant Delights Nursery is the brand new crevice garden still under construction. Made with up-cycled 'urbanite', what Tony calls recycled concrete, it is being planted with all sorts of interesting plants, most not commonly seen in typical alpine crevice gardens, this should open up a new way to garden in the south as well.

The New Crevice Garden

Bobby Ward explained to me in the car drive down here that Tony was inspired to gave a crevice garden after seeing the small one that Kenton Set installed at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum that the Piedmont chapter of NARGS sponsored, but this one being installed was completely Tony's idea a became a way for him to recycle the concert (which Tony calls 'urbanite') which was removed from the site of an old house where his new house is being built for he and his wife Anita nearby.)

Under the guidance of Colorado crevice garden wunderkind Kenton Seth who provided some advice over a few phone calls to Jeremy Schmidt on Tony's staff (Jeremy is from the 2005-06 Longwood Gardens Program and is currently research and grounds supervisor here). Along with help from experienced crevice garden builder Michael Peden who came down and volunteered from New York State to get Jeremy started, I was able to see the results of the first phase (yes, there are phases here - for the crevice trend is practical and endlessly interesting for plant people - allowing them to try plants in conditions which otherwise would never grow, even in this climate of the hot and humid south.).

Jeremy Schmidt on the staff at PDN shows me the material he used to fill the crevice garden with, part local stone, and part permatil (the pea sizes material which is inert, expanded slate). Along with gravel, native sand, native clay and a trace amount of organic matter, they are hoping to provide growing conditions for everything from South African bulbs to cacti.

Tony and Jeremy explained to me that their plans are massive.The final garden will be 250 feet long with both wet and dry areas. Tony said that the soil with have an alkaline pH which will open up the planting for many unusual species often not seen in crevice gardens which already exist in the Northeast or the Northwest, or even in the Southwest. Tony said that he plants to have this phase completed by late summer. Now, what botanic garden is able to undertake something like that besides Denver?

The first phase of the crevice garden is being planted now, and looks promising. Even more promising are the thousands of seedlings being raised in one of the propagation houses - 200 taxa I am told - all from excess NARGS seed (honestly, I've never seen such germination rates!). With 250 feel of crevice to fill, these seedlings will have a good home, but also, I can tell that interesting tests and experiments are going on, even in this phase one planting where unconventional plants such as craniums, Scilla and South African plants are being planted along with yucca. Panayoti would be proud (or jealous).

Field Testing and Research Support

Plants come here not just from Tony and his staff's breeding and collecting, but plants find homes here from all over the world. Anyone in the world today who is serious about plants knows about Tony and Plant Delights. I saw names on labels that I recognized from friends and explorers, collectors, hybridizers and plantsmen who wee visited or who have stayed with us, or those Iv'e only stalked on Facebook. The plant world is really a small world, and even though one may collect in South Africa, Chile or grow bulbs in Italy, they share through this amazing network of knowledgeable plant people not unlike a web of micorrhiza.

Mangave's are taking over. As cross between the genus Manfreda and the genus Agave,m, these less-pointy-more-rubbery plants are transforming how we plant succulents in containers with their size and amazing color, speckles and hues. More dog friendly too, with fewer eye-poking tips! Believe me, they look much nicer in person.


Then there is the Mangave trend - of which, we can thank Tony. We are at the nexus of the next rising trend in the plant world - the Managave (a plant name - or portmanteau - between Manfreda and Agave coined by both Tony Avent and his good friends at Yucca Do nursery.  Botanically an intergeneric hybrid between the genus agave and the lesser known genus of manfreda. Practically at Portmanteau, the Mangave is indeed making the plant world 'mad' - in fact, the phrase "We're Mad about Mangave™" is even now trademarked by them.

The results of this breeding project, which had now handed off to plant guru Hans Hansen from Walters Gardens is just beginning to produce results and I've seen things that I can't explain but which must be in pots in my garden as soon as I can get my hands on them (I'm placing my order NOW!).

It takes an amazing staff 

I particularly noticed the talented staff here - it kind-of made me wish that I could work here, (although, I can imagine that it can't be easy!).  Still, when one hears twenty somethings found watering plants in a hoop house and one overhears the chit-chat - you might expect tales from a night club adventure over the weekend, but no - instead I hear them bragging - not about bass fishing or motorcycles but  about whether it was 2 or 4 new species of trillium they collected last week while driving through the south.

Yeah - while some interns can spend a summer at well-known botanic garden and deal with the weeding and weddings, others could end up in someplace called Juniper Level and discover a new species. Just saying.

Asarum Macranthum 'You're so vein'

Really though, as corny as it sounds, there is a strong sense of purpose and pride here that one senses at every touchpoint, usually only something experiences today at something like a hip Starwood hotel, a Starbucks or an Apple Store. Yes, this is the Genius Bar. One feels the energy like that, the expertise, the smarts, which all translates down to the quality of the plants. It all feels like a smooth operation - that of picking and fulfilling orders to carefully wrapping and packaging. I saw trays of orders ready to go out in one house, and even boxes being packed by the 'elves' we never hear about in another house.

Shipping staff busy on this hot, spring day packaging up orders to go.

And then, there is the Amazon.com-ness

It's easy to forget that Plant Delight is also a mail order business. It might seem silly to impinge, but very much like my visit to Annie's Annuals outside of San Fransisco or even White Flower Farm, good mail order nurseries often don't feel like mail order nurseries. I don't quite know how to articulate it, (and believe me, this just may be my ADD mind playing tricks on me with far too many things to capture my attention), but for some reason, it's always a surprise when I come across how things really work.

Orders pulled, labeled and nearly ready to go, awaiting a final check. Look at the size of these plants!

I remember seeing hard-working staff members at Annie's Annuals sowing seeds behind long benches of salvia and nasturtiums seedlings, and then realizing that 'Oh yeah - right - this is a mail order business too - and a big one at that.). At Plant Delights, Tony was happy to show me how the magic works - how those big boxes of carefully wrapped big plants makes it to my doorstep.

Tony examines a Sprekelia formossima, a relative of the amaryllis which he is trialing in the field.

I know many feel that plants from Plant Delights is expensive. Maybe for some things, but all I can say is I rarely regret paying. premium price for premium product, and let's face it, with plants, it's always a bit of a crap shoot when ordering on-line. The reason I order from Plant Delights, aside from the selection, is often the size and health of the plant - especially for us in the North. A canna for $25 or an alocasia for $30 needs to be of some size before it begins to take off around July 4th around here. I can get that from PDN. Just be an informed consumer. If you an find the exact same cultivar for less elsewhere, then buy it there, if you want an unusual or hard-to-find one, go here.

Agave in pots

Organization is key

I always wondered how plant nurseries like this organize everything when I realized the challenge -and probably why being open to the public like a normal nursery could pose problems. Imagine if Amazon opened it's warehouse every day to the public, allowing folks to pick through paperbacks well organized in trays and little valuable bits in bins, each carefully numbered and coded by type. With plants, as living things, the challenge of maintaining organization is even more critical. For me, it's shocking that they are even open for the few days that they are.

Cypripediums are costly, but these each have many eyes, making the investment worth the added cost.

It was fun to see such excess right there before me - one tray of a rare cypripedium with name tags showing the price of $100 each reminded me of another risk (aside from the obvious one that name tags could easily be misplaced). Imagine being the team member who forgets to water that tray? Two grand down the drain, if not more. Imagine forgetting to water that greenhouse for one hot day (as today was?). Imagine the overhead? The nursery business - at this on this level is risky, but somehow Tony and his team of talented plant people are making magic. Let's hope that they continue long into the future.

Agave's in containers are addictive.

Plant Delights is part Taliesin, part Tanglewood and part Santa's Workshop. It's probably part labor camp too for some, but all good things come with a cost! This stuff ain't easy.

appeal, places like this will only become more important.


  1. How awesome to get a behind-the-scenes look! It's such a wonderful nursery and botanical garden. When I lived in North Carolina I went to a few of the open house days, which were of course mind-blowing (not too mention budget-blowing). I knew a couple people who started working there, and a few weeks after starting work all those Latin botanical names were just rolling off their tongue. Such a great education to work at a place like that!

  2. A special place, for sure!

  3. Love driving down there on the open house days ...

  4. I love PDN. Yes they are expensive, but they provide quality plants and service. Once, I ordered a cypripedium for $40; in the spring they called me and said they thought that cyp was doing poorly and offered a more expensive substitute. That's customer service!

    PDN has sales in the fall, so that is one way to get of their plants a little cheaper.

    Margaret Roach recently had Tony of PDN on her podcast (on Trilliums), a good listen:

  5. can't wait to make a vist.

  6. What a fascinating tour! I've never ordered from PDN before but I may have to peak into their catalog now. Yucca Do is 30 minutes from me, though I've only been to visit Peckerwood on a tour and again, never ordered from Yucca Do. I liked your description of typical nurseries---the ones I've been to that resembled your description were primarily on some interesting backroads of Homestead and Redland, FL. Sometimes we came across some fascinating specimens, though.


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