Visit to Plant Delights Nursery: Southwestern garden & agave collection

Is a southwestern garden what you expect to see when you visit the Raleigh, North Carolina, display gardens of online nursery Plant Delights?

Do you expect to see cholla cactus in bloom?

Or how about a ghostly ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (Agave ovatifolia)?

You do if you’ve spent any time poring over the pages of their fabulous printed or online catalog. Ah, Plant Delights—it’s a collector’s nursery, a gardener’s fantasy land. Unapologetically ornamental and zone-pushing, the nursery’s motto is “Bringing the world to your garden.” I’ve dog-eared their catalogs and splurged on a few unusual plants over the years, so during my recent visit to central North Carolina, I made sure to schedule a visit to tour their Juniper Level Botanic Garden. (The display gardens are not open to the public, but enthusiasts may arrange a visit in advance or attend one of Plant Delights’ open houses).

If you aren’t familiar with Plant Delights or its founder, plantsman Tony Avent, let me refer you to a descriptive post about a Plant Delights visit by Garden Rant. On the morning of my scheduled visit, my family and I were the only visitors and had the whole 5 acres to ourselves, which we ambled in for a good 2-1/2 hours before I played out my family’s patience. Yes indeed, they are good sports.

Because I’m an agave-holic and have a weakness for bold architectural plants like this Yucca rostrata, and because a southwestern garden is something I can have in Austin, I spent a lot of time in this part of the garden. Tony and his staff garden almost exclusively on berms, not just in the southwestern garden but throughout the grounds. Good drainage is essential for desert plants, especially in wet winters, so planting them on berms composed of lean, gritty soil makes perfect sense. I read in their brochure that they brought in 600 dump truck loads of soil to make all the berms. 600!

An agave in flower on one of the bermed beds. Agaves live many years before blooming and then go out with a bang: a phallic bloom spike that reaches tree height followed by the collapse and death of the mother plant.

The lush foliage surrounding the southwestern garden reveals that Raleigh is not exactly a hospitable climate for dry-loving plants. It’s also a testament to the effectiveness of using berms to keep away root rot for these types of plants. Raleigh is in hardiness zone 7b, a bit cooler than Austin’s 8b, and these plants live outdoors year-round.

A green succulent carpet surrounds a rock.

Tony’s irreverent humor is apparent throughout his catalog, and humorous touches can be found in the gardens as well.

While the garden is well labeled, I didn’t take the time to get IDs on every plant I photographed, to my regret. Update: This is rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium). Thanks for the ID, Cameron and Nathan.

Agave lophantha in bloom

The gardens surround the Avents’ home. When I entered their back patio I nearly swooned. It’s an agave lover’s paradise!

A hundred or more terracotta pots hold single specimens, no two alike.

They line a semicircular bed planted with hardy agaves and opuntia mixed with flowering perennials.

Just look! It was almost too much to take in.

They are all so exquisite.

This is Mangave ‘Psycho’—a little creepy and claw-like, yes?

Lushly bordered, the open, expansive patio provides a sunny space with reflected heat for Tony’s collection.

The large space is broken up with weathered ollas surrounded by potted cactus and succulents.

A closer look

A large Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoriae-reginae) backed by prickly pear and softened in front by some sort of sedge. I love this.

Stunning variegated agaves are displayed on one end of the patio.

Beautiful! That looks like a Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’ in front.

And more!

Many of the plants you see in the gardens are for sale in the greenhouses. At the end of our visit, I made a beeline for the spiky tables and picked out a couple ‘Bloodspot’ mangaves and cold-hardy dyckias—plants small and hardy enough to stuff into the hot trunk during our travels without much worry. How I wished, though, for an unlimited budget and more trunk space.

Tomorrow I’ll post about the pond garden and hardy tropicals at Plant Delights.

All material © 2006-2011 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

22 Responses

  1. Wow! I bet you were in heaven, there. And, I bet you’re glad you drove. At least you could bring some back.
    Looking forward to tomorrow’s tour. Thanks…

    It was pretty heavenly, Linda. I only wish I’d had more room (and cooler temps) in order to bring home more plants. —Pam

  2. Randy says:

    Wow, what an inspiration that garden is… Let’s me see what a slacker I’ve been lately.

    Summer is my slacking time, Randy. It’s too hot to be gardening—time to kick back and enjoy it. —Pam

  3. kim shields says:

    What a wonderful place! As a newbie gardener, the first time I saw the photo of your whales tongue agave in your garden, I was hooked on agaves. I found one (I am not 100% sure it is a whales tongue) at the Rose Emporium in San Antonio that had been frost damaged. I have it in a pot for now and it has put on some beautiful new leaves(?) Thank you for all your inspirational photos!

    What a wonderful thing to hear, Kim. I’m happy to have inspired a new agave lover. It was Tom Spencer who got me hooked on them. Enjoy your (maybe) Whale’s Tongue! —Pam

  4. What a gorgeous visit!

    It was a lovely place, Linda. —Pam

  5. You’ve captured Tony’s gardens so well!

    That plant with the white globe thistle look is rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium.

    Thanks for the ID, Cameron. —Pam

  6. Nicole says:

    Ahh, this week I am actually awaiting my first order from PDN-including a whale’s tongue agave inspired by yours. Those variegated agaves are to die for.

    Oh, how exciting, Nicole. Enjoy your baby Whale’s Tongue! —Pam

  7. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Gosh Pam my head is dizzy from the array of succulents you’ve shown us. I can only imagine how wonderful it would be to tour the place. You should have taken advantage of the opportunity to purchase more plants. Heck, I bet the children would have done just fine strapped to the top of the car. ;)

    Why didn’t I think of that!? :-) —Pam

  8. Yep, it’s official…I’ll be needing to go there one day. WOW. Excellent pictures Pam! I figure if I fly out with only an overnight bag and then pack away my agave purchases bare-root and check them on the plane I should be ok. I’ll only need to check 3 or 4 boxes!

    Oh and about the berms…I totally get it, in a situation like this (or in Ricki’s garden) they make sense. When they look like buried elephants is in a lawn covered suburban landscape where they just wanted to add height to their daisies. Or at least that’s what the original (Bunny Williams) commenter was getting at, I think.

    I just love your “buried elephant” comparison, Loree, and will never look at that sort of berm the same way again (I know just what you’re referring to). As for the P.D. visit, yes, you need to go. It’s the bringing home agaves in the luggage that sounds tricky to me. But where there’s a will, there’s a way! —Pam

  9. So fun to see all this. We’re head to Las Vegas for my nieces wedding this weekend–but she actually lives in Cary, NC. I just Googled directions from her house to Plant Delights and see that it’s about a 20 minutes drive. Now you got me thinking…

    Hmm, Las Vegas to Cary is a looong detour, Tricia. But well worth it. ;-) —Pam

  10. Weeder says:

    PDN’s catalogue has always been full of humor, and great plants. Love the descriptions. Hmmmm, I should order something….
    Thanks again for a great tour. Looking forward to tomorrow’s!

    Yes, their catalog is always so funny. Have you seen the latest cover? I think it’s on their website. —Pam

  11. Denise says:

    Third picture from the end is so gorgeous it’s like getting a kick in the stomach. Whenever I think I have too many containers, I’m coming back here for reassurance.

    Coming from you, Denise, that’s quite a compliment! Those agaves made me want more containers too. —Pam

  12. Gail says:

    Who would think that a garden in Raleigh would be dedicated to Southwestern plants! It is a delightful and wonderful resource, I hope to visit there someday. gail

    I know, but their catalog is full of agaves and other southwestern plants, so I had high hopes for the display garden and was not disappointed. Hope you get to visit one day, Gail. —Pam

  13. Randy says:


    Tony has the personal garden to beat all around here. He even gives Sara P Duke Gardens in Durham, NC a good run for the money. They however have structures and bridges everywhere. I have not been to Tony’s in many years and we live just over an hour away. These photos have awed me..

    You’re so close, Randy! I hope you get to visit again sometime soon. —Pam

  14. I think I would’ve found a spot for ‘Psycho’ too–that’s one cool plant!

    By the way, since you didn’t get the name of all of those plants whose photos you took… I REALLY think you need to go back for another visit. ;-)

    I would have bought ‘Psycho’ mangave if I’d seen it for sale, Kim. It’s definitely a conversation piece. —Pam

  15. Dustin says:

    Awesome post. Thanks for sharing. We must find out what the “green succulent carpet” is!

    It’s awfully pretty, isn’t it? Maybe you can find it in their online catalog? —Pam

  16. […] in tomorrow for a third and final post about Plant Delights. For a look back at Plant Delights’ southwestern garden and agave collection, click […]

  17. Chookie says:

    Looks great — I love nurseries run by maniacs for a particular plant or other.

    Yes, passionate gardeners are always interesting. —Pam

  18. Superb!

    I’m glad you enjoyed the virtual visit, Helen. —Pam

  19. Thanks for sharing! I haven’t seen his garden since 2002. The berms were had been planted but were young and the pond was a big mud-hole. A truly amazing garden for plant collectors. And I love the Agave display in terra-cotta. If you’re still in the area Go check out and . Photo #11 rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium ?

    Thanks for the ID, Nathan. It sounds like the garden has changed quite a bit since you were there. Thanks for the links. I’m home now, but it sounds like good stuff to see next time. —Pam

  20. […] a look back at Plant Delights’ southwestern garden and agave collection, click here. For a look at P.D.’s hardy tropicals and pond gardens, click […]

  21. hb says:

    Wow, what a magnificent Agave collection, and in NC of all places. Quite amazing! Thanks for the wonderful tour.

    It really is magnificent, HB. So beautifully arranged in addition to being a fabulous collection. —Pam

  22. They really offer fabulous plants, and not always that pricey for what they are. Thanks for all these posts. I don’t think I’ve ever really seen any photos of the nursery etc. What an amazing place to work, let alone live!

    Linda, Garden Writers Assoc. met in Raleigh a couple of years ago. I didn’t attend, but I read a number of posts about their visit to Plant Delights, which was the first time I’d heard about their display gardens. I am glad to have had the opportunity to see them for myself. —Pam