I first heard Tony Avent give a presentation at an induction dinner for North Carolina State University’s Pi Alpha Xi chapter, the horticultural honor fraternity. Of course, PAX is an academic fraternity, not a social one, but most would agree that the biannual plant sales have provided plenty of social opportunity. But I digress.

Tony’s talk consisted of a slide show of various types of landscapes: the good, the bad and the ugly. He didn’t mince words with his descriptions of a ranch-style home with “a few meatballs scattered along the foundation,” referring to nondescript green shrubs that had been mercilessly sheared into a meatball shape. Thus, his message to this aspiring group of horticultural professionals was to “think outside the meatball.”

Tony not only had words of inspiration that evening, he shared slides of his personal gardens – which go far beyond the average landscape to join the ranks of botanic gardens. Seriously.

Tony’s Juniper Level Botanic Gardens is a 5-acre display garden, home to more than 17,000 different plants. It’s a research and development facility for Tony’s mail-order business, Plant Delights Nursery Inc. in Raleigh, NC. Even cooler, it’s actually Tony and wife Michelle’s yard.

In fall 2007, I took a tour of Juniper Level Botanic Gardens and stood in awe as I mentally compared it with my own rather traditional landscape. Our tour group meandered along the paths, past water features, plant collections, rare specimens and new introductions that were still under evaluation – including a variegated kudzu. (Yes, kudzu – known for its invasive tendencies. But I suppose one could argue that most variegated plants are less aggressive than their green counterpart.)

One of the fantastic things about Tony’s gardens is that you can tell he’s a bit of a plant geek. He’s serious about plant nomenclature, and he spends several weeks each year on plant expeditions in the US and abroad. That said, he’s also a man with a sense of humor. Throughout the gardens, he’s sprinkled examples of his take on garden art. For example, at first you might think vandals have trashed an old bathroom sink among the hosta, but then you notice a small sign by the sink, that reads, “I Sink, Therefore I am.” (And yes, for the bargain price of $3,250, you can own this fine feature from the “Juniper Level Galleries Stupid Sculpture Series.”)

Of course, a garden of this magnitude doesn’t grow overnight, and a gardener with a true passion for plants is never finished developing such a space. Since Tony began the garden, the first installment has grown into more of a woodland area where shade plants thrive. In contrast, the opposite side of the property now features a tropical oasis devoted to succulents, palms and elephant ears.

Visitors can shop at the nursery as well – but don’t expect to find run-of-the-mill plants there. Instead, you’ll discover a wide variety of woody plants and perennials that have been evaluated and propagated right there at the nursery.

If buying plants doesn’t suit your travel arrangements, at least pick up a catalog and enjoy the descriptive, honest and sometimes humorous plant descriptions – and the amusing catalog covers (some of which are so popular, they’ve been transferred to T-shirts). Just be warned if you do make the trip. As Plant Delights’ welcome sign reads: It’s “not responsible for any loss of mental or fiscal control during your visit…enjoy!”

Juniper Level Botanic Gardens montage

With more than 17,000 different plants on display and some tranquil water features, visitors can find all kinds of beauty and peace at Juniper Level Botanic Gardens in Raleigh, NC.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

Juniper Level Botanic Gardens montage

You’ll find unusual beauties tucked throughout Tony Avent’s magnificent gardens.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame