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Nursery owner plants delight in growers by making gardening fun

Saturday, February 10, 2001

By Susan Banks, Post-Gazette Garden Editor

"We were looking forward to perusing our Plant Delights catalog but were utterly dismayed at the tasteless front cover."

"Well, I just had to see for myself how you have crossed the line from witty to offensive."

Plant Delights Nursery owner Tony Avent gets hate mail. OK, not a lot. But he says it's carefully composed, so, he carefully puts it on his Web site, right along with his "Glowing Testimonial Letters" and "Letters from Customers in the Twilight Zone."



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It seems you either love him and his nursery, or, well, you hate him. But however you feel, the nursery catalog certainly gets your attention. The spring 2001 cover is illustrated with a colorful cartoon by Jack Pittman that shows a group of carnivorous plants munching on bugs while engaging in sports. No lavish illustration of a perfect peony, just plants playing baseball. Clearly, Martha Stewart would not approve.

While the catalog layout isn't serious, the plant offerings are. Avent, a Raleigh, N.C., resident, says he loves what he does, but he doesn't consider it rocket science. Nor does he get excited at the few people who don't find his catalog amusing.

"Gardening is about having fun," says Avent, who also says, "I consider every plant hardy until I have killed it myself ... at least three times."

Avent, who will be here to participate in the Western Pennsylvania Gardening & Landscaping Symposium on Feb. 24, wants to get people excited about plants again. If that means piquing their interest with a funny cartoon or taking political potshots on the back cover under the guise of a plant list, well, then, so be it.

"We love the customers we have," says Avent. "We do anything for our customers, but if you don't have a sense of humor you don't qualify to be a Plant Delights customer."

In fact, those meanies who write nasty letters have never even purchased a plant from the nursery, even if they claim otherwise. Avent knows, because he's checked.

Open the catalog and you are likely to be exposed to descriptions like:

"Amorphophallus paeoniifolius (Peony Leaf Voodoo Lily) ... It looks like a purple dust-ruffle on top of a short pedestal, inside of which is a distorted, purple human brain" or "Canna 'Pacific Beauty' ... takes tackiness to a whole new level."

You'll also be exposed to some really cool plants, like collections of Arisaema (Jack-in-the-Pulpits) and Sarracenia (Pitcher plants). Want something more "mundane"? Avent is known for his high-quality hostas. He's also recently begun offering a few Hemerocallis, or daylilies, for sale. These are chosen for their garden-worthiness and not for their show-quality flowers. They are older varieties, like Stout's 'Challenger' and the '60s hybrid 'August Flame,' which is ancient in daylily terms.

The mission of the nursery is clearly stated inside the front cover of the catalog: Change the way America gardens by offering the best, the newest, and the strangest, in fun, garden-worthy perennials to gardeners around the world.

He's doing that and takes aim at the entire industry while he's at it.

"Most nurseries have done a bad job about getting customers excited about plants," says Avent. "If you look, they send the most boring plants you can find. Little green blobs are not exciting; we want to get plants out there that people enjoy, that improve with age."

For instance, he started offering Amorphophallus (Voodoo lily), a plant that resembles, well, a phallus. Definitely not for everyone. The first year, the nursery sold only one. The next year, it sold two. Now the nursery regularly sells thousands and has nine varieties on its list.

"You have to convince people that these are really cool plants," says Avent.

He does that by not only offering new and unusual plants but also by employing a staff of people who love dealing with the public and thrive on helping gardeners figure out how to grow things. Need some information? Just call. It's a happy place to work, so happy in fact that Avent says the business has a waiting list of those who would like to be hired.

The nursery does fine financially, but money isn't the bottom line. The plants are. And that's reflected by the enthusiasm of the customers.

In fact, Avent's catalog gets a whopping 42 percent return, which means 42 percent of those who get a catalog buy something. Contrast that with some of the big nurseries out there like White Flower Farms, who are happy to get between a 1 percent to 2 percent return on the catalogs they send out.

It's hard not to get excited about gardening when you talk to Avent. He's full of ideas and opinions, and he's willing to share. One of the subjects he plans on covering during his appearance here is "If You Want to Make a Garden, You've Got to Break a Few Rules." Just get him started on that one. He takes a jab at landscape architects everywhere by encouraging gardeners to plant in "drifts of one."

"If you read the landscape books, they'll tell you to use drifts of threes, fives, 50s, 100s. Big masses suck, they are boring, they came from landscape architects. Landscape architects hate plants; they have a secret mission to get rid of all plants. They use the same 12 plants. They could not do a plan that involved more than 12 plants if their life depended on it," says Avent.

His garden at the nursery, the Juniper Level Botanic Garden, contains more than 9,000 different plants. No drifts of plants there.

"When they look at my gardening, you see the light bulb going off in their heads," says Avent. "I get more people who come up to me and say, 'You have just freed me. I have felt guilty my entire life for gardening this way, and now I feel vindicated.' "

Avent is making a difference in other ways in the horticulture world. He's an avid plant collector, and while he's made trips to China, which he calls the current "flavor of the month" for collectors, he says Texas is one of the best-kept secrets in horticulture.

"The diversity of plant material in Texas is truly mind-boggling. Nobody but the botanists know about the incredible plant material there. If you are looking for a heat- and drought-tolerant plant, Texas is the place to get it. There is no good horticulturist looking for plants in Texas."

Well, except for Avent. He's currently high on sun-tolerant ferns. Texas has 35 species of ferns that grow in full sun, he says. He thinks gardeners will be quite interested in ferns that don't require shade and moist conditions.

Take a common garden plant like Mirabilis (Four-o'clocks). Currently, gardeners grow one kind. There are 36 species of Mirabilis in Texas just sitting there waiting to be picked up. Or Baptisia (Wild Indigo).

Avent also deals in some of the more "common" garden plants, like hosta. He says he's been growing hostas for more than 35 years.

"I was hostas before hostas were cool," he says. Now there is a hosta glut, he adds. At one point, he realized he had more than 600 varieties at his nursery.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm collecting names and not good quality plants,' " he says.

So, in typical Avent fashion, he tossed more than half the collection.

Even getting a copy of Avent's catalog is a little different than other nurseries. You send 10 stamps or a box of chocolates to Plant Delights Inc., 9241 Sauls Road, Raleigh, NC 27603.

So how many boxes of chocolates have they received? According to Avent, hundreds. And while most are chocolates of the common variety, they have received some more exotic sweets, like homemade fudge (with recipe), a 10-pound box of Godiva via air-mail and high-quality Belgian and Dutch chocolate from European customers. They even got some "serious" bourbon balls that made the staff tipsy.

Want a catalog? Collect the stamps or chocolate. Want to be entertained and enlightened by Avent? Come to the Western Pennsylvania Gardening & Landscaping Symposium, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 24 at The Pittsburgh Zoo's Education Building, Highland Park. Fee: $95. For more information, call the Pittsburgh Garden Place at 412-441-4442.

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