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RE: Tony Avent in NYTimes


Thanks for posting that article. 
He cracked me up with the comment about agapanthus and kniphofia. I've been
growing both of those for years. I happily admit to tacky and gaudy
tendencies with my plants - subtle foliage tucked discreetly in small
spaces, with flowers you need a magnifying glass to appreciate, is NOT my
style! 

Cyndi  

-----Original Message-----
From: owner-gardenchat@hort.net [mailto:owner-gardenchat@hort.net] On Behalf
Of james singer
Sent: Thursday, April 06, 2006 3:45 AM
To: Garden Chat
Subject: [CHAT] Tony Avent in NYTimes

For those who don't peruse the regularly Times, here's this mornings
article on Tony Avent.

In the Plant Game, Some Bets Are In

By KEN DRUSE

Published: April 6, 2006

TONY AVENT is not too worried about reports that the garden market is
in decline, or so he would have you believe. Mr. Avent, a co-owner of
Plant Delights Nursery, a retail and mail-order concern in Raleigh,
N.C., acknowledged recently that "the slump is real"  after years of
double-digit sales increases, he said, the business saw a decrease in
sales of 2.2 percent in 2004 and no growth last year. But "these things
happen in cycles," he said.

Mr. Avent is relying on his customer base, which he says is made up
mainly of "collectors" (as opposed to "mainstream" buyers, who frequent
local nurseries and garden centers, or what he calls the "bottom
feeders," who buy on impulse at big box stores and home improvement
outlets) to help him cycle out of the current downturn. Plant Delights
is one of the country's premier "boutique" nurseries, known, along with
others like Heronswood in Washington state, Fairweather Gardens in New
Jersey and Forestfarm in Oregon, for attracting serious gardeners every
spring with new and unexpected botanical eye candy.

And Mr. Avent, who owns the nursery with his wife, Michelle, has
developed a reputation among his customers for predicting and even
setting trends in gardening. In the early 1980's, he took tropical
houseplants off the windowsill and planted them in outdoor beds and
containers for summer, creating a craze for frost-tender perennials
that continues today. In the mid 90's, he bet on hostas, breeding his
own (and giving them ear-catching names like Elvis Lives, Elephant
Burgers and Hosta Bubba); they are now among the best-selling
perennials on the market. And 10 years ago he fell for Arisaema 
jack-in-the-pulpits  from Asia, contributing to what became a national
love affair with the plants.

For customers like Mark Veeder, a New York City events planner with a
garden in Barryville, N.Y., who flew to North Carolina and filled a
rented truck with plants from the nursery in 2001, it "is a kind of
mecca." Its huge test garden has more than 17,000 specimens so "you can
see how the plants grow," he said, and it offers "the newest, most
sought-after items"  plants that get the collector's heart thumping.

"Our goal is to separate the winners from the losers so our customers
don't have to," said Mr. Avent, who travels constantly in search of new
plants, networking with other plant breeders and what are known as
"sport fishermen" (avid collectors who search out and develop the
unexpected plant mutations that go unnoticed at commercial nurseries),
as well as his customers, who are often knowledgeable themselves.

Some of Mr. Avent's newest plants come from nurseries in other
countries, like England, that are more horticulturally advanced than
the United States. (Asked to pinpoint the cultural difference, Mr.
Avent said: "If you're a kid in England and you're not interested in
gardening, your parents take you to a psychiatrist to find out why. If
you're a kid in the United States and you're interested in gardening,
your parents take you to a psychiatrist to find out why.") Two of the
most promising English imports, he said, are Agapanthus and Kniphofia,
both of which are already popular on the West Coast.

"They're great, tacky, gaudy plants," Mr. Avent said, "and I think
that's why they're becoming popular. People are inherently tacky and
gaudy, and at certain times in history that becomes acceptable."

Other new favorites are hybrids, like the Colocasia, or elephant's-ear,
that he has been breeding in collaboration with a University of Hawaii
professor. These rugged tropical plants, often with enormous leaves,
have been growing in popularity for a few years  perhaps, Mr. Avent
speculates, because gardeners in temperate climates are drawn to their
exoticism and to the challenge that growing a tropical plant in a
temperate climate seems to present. "When you give people something
they think they can't grow, they love it," he said. He seems confident
that his new breeds, which are still in development, will have huge
commercial appeal when they are introduced to the market in the next
year or so.

Some of Mr. Avent's finds come from the wild and are grown from seed
and then introduced to the market. "People are always looking for
something that will take shade and be durable," he said. "That's one
reason I think wild ginger has tremendous potential," he added of a
plant that enjoys cult status in Japan but is only beginning to find
its place in the American market.

Another Avent success story is the Baptisia minor (or Blue Pearls). Ten
years ago, having witnessed the popularity of the Baptisia australis, a
widely available, drought-resistant plant with indigo flowers, he made
repeated trips through the backwoods of the Southeast, from North
Carolina to Texas, in search of a smaller, more marketable version of
the species growing in the wild.

  After gathering seeds from 30 different varieties, he found a compact
one that bloomed in profusion, growing 56 flower spikes on each plant,
compared with an average of six on a typical wild Baptisia. He
introduced the new plant to the market last year and already it is so
popular, he said, that his nursery "can hardly produce it fast enough"
to keep it in stock.

Still other plants, like the ferns he sees "coming back in," are not
new but renewed, brought back after decades out of the public eye.
These plants, infamous as symbols of 1970's dicor, are now selling well
for outdoor use in shady gardens. (Ferns, like many other plants, he
noted, move in 30-year fashion cycles.) Mr. Avent has brought back a
few fern varieties that had been popular Victorian plants, but were
nearly lost forever.

Mr. Avent is adamant that timing is all when it comes to a plant's
market potential. Plants have to be novel enough to catch the eye but
can't stand out so far from the pack that they intimidate consumers.
His own experience bears this out. He has occasionally been so far
ahead of the curve that it has taken nearly a full fashion cycle for
the world to catch up. In 1981, he grew a pineapple lily, or Eucomis,
from seed that came up with striking purple leaves, instead of the
usual green. He introduced it to the market as Eucomis Sparkling
Burgundy, but it did not become a huge success for more than two
decades.

Mr. Avent is the first to admit that he sometimes errs on the side of
optimism, particularly when it comes to the cold tolerance of plants.
"I consider every plant hardy until I have killed it myself," he said.
"At least three times." He claims that Agave Silver Surfer and Acanthus
mollis, which have done well in North Carolina, are strong enough to
survive colder climates farther north, although some gardeners,
including this one, have not had such luck. (I did have more success
with the hardier Acanthus hungaricus, which blooms freely in my Zone 6
garden, where the temperature can drop to as low as minus 10; Mr. Avent
has it in his display gardens this year.)

Mr. Avent's serious plant collectors, like Mr. Veeder, reject the
suggestion that the recent downturn in sales may be a sign that
gardening is falling from favor. "Never," he said. "I still think
people are longing to connect to each other and feel a sense of
belonging." Gardening, he said, "creates an occasion to connect with
people." And Mr. Avent, for his part, is grateful for customers like
Mr. Veeder, comparing their devotion to the fanaticism of antiques
collectors. Still, he points to what he sees as a crucial difference.
"I bought an antique chest, and I've watched it all year," he said. "It
hasn't grown an inch."


Island Jim
Southwest Florida
27.0 N, 82.4 W
Hardiness Zone 10
Heat Zone 10
Minimum 30 F [-1 C]
Maximum 100 F [38 C]

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