Acclaimed horticulturist Tony Avent doesn’t come from a long line of gardening geniuses. He’s just always had a natural affinity for plants.
“Growing up, I spent all of my time in the woods,” he said. “I was very interested in native wild flowers. I used to make and sell terrariums and dish gardens when I was about 5 years old, and I bought my first mail-order plants when I was 6 years old. That was fascinating to me, that you could be anywhere in the world and buy a plant that you wanted.”
Today, Avent is proprietor of his own mail-order nursery, Plant Delights Nursery, and the 28-acre Juniper Level Botanic Garden in Raleigh, N.C., which hosts one of the most extensive perennial trialing programs in the country.
The plant enthusiast will be one of the featured speakers at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College Foundation’s 15th annual Home and Garden Symposium, set for Wednesday, May 8, on campus in the Building R atrium and Roquemore Auditorium. Avent will be joined by cookbook author and “Potluck with Ali Rosen” founder and host Ali Rosen.
Avent spends a lot of time sharing his passion for plants and trekking around the world in search of unique finds.
“We’ve done over 80 trips worldwide,” he said. “For us, it’s about preserving plants. Climate has always changed, and plants can’t just pack up their belongings and move to a more adaptable climate. They rely on us to spread them to more acceptable climates.”
Since the garden’s founding in 1988, Avent and his team have grown some 65,000 different kinds of plants. Of those, about 26,000 have survived.
“We learn something each time we kill one,” he said. “We generally like to try three different times in different spots because many times, it’s simply getting a plant in the right location. We are a research and development nursery. We keep extensive records on what survived, what didn’t survive and why it didn’t survive because for us, it’s about accumulating a knowledgebase that we can then share with others so they don’t have to kill the plants.”
Avent’s Home and Garden Symposium presentation will be unique to the area, focusing on top perennials for Orangeburg and surrounding communities.
“A lot of speakers do canned talks. They say, ‘Here are my favorite perennials,’ and they take it everywhere,” he said. “Everybody’s garden is different. You’ve got one garden that’s wet, one that’s dry, one that has shade in the morning, one that has shade in the afternoon, one that’s on soil that has a pH of 3 and one that has a pH of 8. And every season, plants are different. There are plants that we can grow here that an hour away will not grow. Plants are that specific. You’ve got to really spend the time looking at what grows in a particular zone.”
Avent’s favorite and best-selling plants vary from day to day, season to season and year to year.
“If you asked me today, I’m probably most excited about trilliums,” he said. “We have a few plants that we know are going to be in the top 20 each year. We have a giant elephant ear called Thailand Giant. We know that’s always going to be a big seller because people like things that are big, despite all of the marketing people in horticulture saying everybody wants things smaller. We don’t see that. We see that people still equate size with value, so for most people, larger is actually better.”
With some preparation and research on the front end, gardening can be exciting and fun, Avent said.
“My advice is to start with the dirt,” he said. “If your soil is in good shape, then gardening becomes very easy. That’s number one. We encourage people to visit botanic gardens, go to arboretums and see the plants. Don’t rely on plant labels, because generally, the sizes listed are about a third of what they really grow to. People put plants in the wrong place and then they buy hedge shears and clip them, when you need to buy a shovel and move the plant to the right place. If it’s done right, you’re not out there with a pair of hedge shears and a sprayer strapped to your back. That’s not fun, and that’s not the way gardening needs to be done.”
If there is anything Avent hopes to leave attendees of the Home and Garden Symposium with, it’s “to learn how nature works, and get them excited about plants.”
“They did a study years ago that said people didn’t want to spend any more time in their garden. They’d rather be out doing fun things,” he said. “That’s because we make gardening boring. It’s an industry, and nurseries are trying to make money. To do that, you reduce the number of plants you carry and only carry things that people can’t kill. We’ve created Stepford gardens. They’re just perfect all the time, and there’s really no reason to engage.”
“It’s all about diversity,” Avent said. “That’s what we want to leave people with – to realize there is this incredible diversity available, that you could be growing really cool, really fun, really exciting plants. Gardening is an incredibly fun, incredibly wonderful thing. There are some pretty amazing things out there.”
In addition to speaker presentations, the Home and Garden Symposium features a community flower show, silent auction and catered brunch by Buck Ridge Plantation.
Tickets are $50 per person, and funds raised assist in providing scholarships for deserving OCtech students and special projects at the college. For tickets, call 803-535-1246, email email@example.com or visit www.octech.edu.
For more information about Plant Delights Nursery and Juniper Level Botanic Garden, visit www.plantdelights.com and www.jlbg.org.