Avec Avent, part II


Here’s another post on my recent visit to Plant Delights and its proprietor Tony Avent.

For many of us who obsess about plants, the politics of weather has increasingly taken center stage, and Tony Avent is no exception. We spent much of our brief time discussing the evolution of the updated zone map (soon to be released).

Avent, who has been involved with the map revision for some years, explained the goof that was made with the first attempt in 2003. “That map was not accurate. It got rid of half the zones [the a’s and b’s]. It was easier to use, but it was wrong. Chicago would have been zone 6.” After that first map (which Avent says was created by a consultant the USDA sent off to make a map so he’d “stop bugging them”), the UDSA called together a new committee, and decided on a 30-year average of temps rather than a 20-year average, which would have created too dramatic a shift. Actually, you can read about much of this in the Plant Delights catalog and website. (I do think there are going to be a lot of disappointed gardeners regardless of how they do the changes. Sure, some plants will be hardy where once they were not. Some winters.)

Avent is always one for the long view and showed me a petrified palm found on his property (photo above) that he says dates from the cretaceous era, about 90 million years ago—this to help illustrate his view that periods of warming come and go. He’s not too concerned about global warming, and to be honest I wasn’t that concerned about discussing it with him. I have my views, and he obviously has his—but I was there for the plants.


And this is a plant geek’s paradise. As great as the Juniper Level gardens are, the greenhouses are even better, because they’re filled with glorious cultivars you can take home. Though, in a way, it’s almost better to use the catalog, as there are many greenhouses and it can be confusing. I spent most of my time in the shade houses, where I found all the double hellebores (some bred by Dan Hinkley) I’d been lusting after since I saw them in the new PD book. There are also the famous hostas and a fabulous assortment of elephant ear. Basically, if it’s got great big flamboyant leaves, you’ll find it here, and plenty more. I know some are wearied by hostas but they are blissfully reliable in Western New York and one of the few attractive solutions for my tons of dry and wet shade. Plus, these aren’t just any hostas—PD has every shade of gold, blue, and green and every type of variegation. I was also impressed by the acanthus, the asarum, the boehmeria, and the ferns. If possible, the plants are bigger and better than you could imagine from the catalog.


So home I went with a nice little cache of asarum, “coffee cup” elephant ear, 2 double hellebores, and a new aruncus.

Oh, yeah, the “friends don’t let friends buy annuals” shirt. I took exception, and Avent, as always, had an anecdote. Seems Anna Ball of Ball Seed was miffed by it but in the end had to admit the annual industry was in a rut and started introducing more variety. True or not, there are enough interesting annuals available now that you’ll never see me wearing that shirt. I bought the “Every plant is hardy until I’ve killed it myself—three times” one.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Very interesting… I would not have pegged Tony Avent for being a Zone Map devotee based on the Plant Delights catalogs I have read. (I crack up at the caveats he puts on his zone ratings, like “3a-7b, at least” and “4a-8b, guessing,” every time I flip through it.)

    I admit that I am also amused at the idea that some gardeners may be “disappointed” in the new Zone maps. What with microclimates and many other factors, if a rosemary is going to consistently overwinter in my garden then it’s going to consistently overwinter in my garden… doesn’t matter whether a map tells me that I live in a zone out of its usual range or not.

  2. Well, I think Tony rightly is worried that gardeners who use zone maps for guidance–and I have to imagine there are quite a few–get something approaching useful guidance.

  3. OOOOH! I want a tee shirt like yours, Elizabeth! I’ve killed a number of plants three times before throwing in the towel; kniphofia, Perovskia, Lithadora and oh so sadly, a number of hellebores. Now I just enjoy them vicariously through others–except Lithadora, which I purchase as a small plant and treat as annuals.

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