TONY AVENT talks as animatedly about Google algorithms as he does about all the cool plants he sells. “Search engines run our lives,” says Avent, a self-described plant geek who is as passionate about business as he is about plant collecting.
And that’s saying quite a bit, because Avent, who will be in Seattle Sept. 19 to deliver the Miller Memorial Lecture, was born with a compulsion to collect plants. “I spent my childhood in the woods finding plants,” he says. “Since I was 6 or 7 I knew I was going to have a mail-order nursery.” He’s owned Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, N.C., for a quarter century. The nursery offers 1,700 kinds of plants on the Web, with 634 listings in the collectible catalog. “We won’t ever be as big as Heronswood was; I’m keeping it manageable. We’ve scaled back,” says Avent. Then he laughs and adds, “Manageable? No, it’s insane.”
Avent lectures far and wide, and is one of those guys who never forgets a plant’s name or its merits. The tagline on his email reads, “I consider every plant hardy until I have killed it myself … at least three times.”
Which brings us to weather and what plants this Southerner is going to tell Northwest gardeners about. Not a problem. “You all don’t get the summer heat,” Avent acknowledges. He sells to customers from all over the world, and buys plants from auctions in Japan and Europe. He’s spent lots of time in the Northwest hanging out with buddies like Dan Hinkley, fern expert Judith Jones, and Kelly Dodson and Sue Milliken from Far Reaches Farm, our equivalent of Plant Delights. This guy has a global plant perspective.
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He also has a lively political perspective that spills onto the covers of his nursery catalog, making it famously controversial. Penn State University threatened to sue after the infamous sex scandal made the cover. “It’s always been a satire of something in current consciousness,” says Avent, who so enjoys the mail he gets in response to his covers that the nursery Web page has a category devoted to hate mail. (). Next spring’s cover? A satire of the NSA wiretap and the IRS scandal.
But back to flora. Because Avent’s nursery specializes in herbaceous plants, he’ll be sure to tell us about ferns, Solomon’s seal and hostas, of which he has introduced quite a few. He points out that we can grow clumping bamboo and Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema spp.) more easily than gardeners in the South. “Epimediums grow equally well on both coasts,” says Avent.
To keep him spinning plant names in his soft, Southern drawl, I ask Avent what’s new and hot in perennials. “There’s so much on the horizon, with all these amateur plant breeders popping up,” he says. He’s excited about hardy orchids, wild gingers (Asarum spp.) and the genus Baptisia, a grassland-looking perennial with pea-like flowers. The man grows 20,386 different plants in the gardens at the nursery — a number he reels off the top of his head.
The title of his talk? “So Many Plants, So Little Time.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.