The privately owned, 28-acre Juniper Level Botanic Garden in southern Wake County, renowned among lovers of rare and unusual plants from around the world, will become a satellite to N.C. State University’s JC. Raulston Arboretum if promoters can raise enough of an endowment to fund operations.
The garden and adjoining nursery, Plant Delights, were started three decades ago by NCSU graduate Tony Avent and his late wife. They’re now open to visitors and researchers by appointment and on select weekends during each season. Once the endowment is fully funded and all the property is transferred to NCSU, Avent said Friday, the property will operate more like Raulston Arboretum, which is open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Avent said putting Juniper Level and Raulston under one umbrella is the ideal pairing, because they both promote plant diversity and sustainability by teaching people what they can grow at home, and by sharing specimens of rare and unusual plants rather than keeping them out of reach.
Avent, 60, still works in the nursery and the garden but hopes one day to retire, and he wants to make sure the collection he and his staff have built lives on. He and his wife, Anita, have been talking with NCSU for about two years to make plans to turn over the property.
Avent said the endowment will need $17 million to guarantee that the garden will continue to operate as it does now, with 36 year-round employees and another 19 in spring and summer. The garden will go to NCSU even with a smaller endowment, Avent said, but with lower staffing — enough to keep all the plants alive, but maybe not enough to do overseas plant collecting, for example.
“The money is out there,” Avent said. “It’s just a matter of making people want to preserve what is here and make them understand why it’s important.”
What gardeners have created at the site is one of the most diverse collections of plants in the country, with what Avent says are among the largest collections of several items in the world.
“Botanic people are hoarders,” Avent said, prone to collect rare specimens and keep them to themselves, the way certain antique or jewelry or wine aficionados might do. That’s wrong, Avent says; plants belong out in the world, in the ecosystem, and the only way to make sure they don’t become extinct is to propagate them.
Over the years, Avent has traveled around the country and gone overseas to collect cuttings, seeds or plants to bring back and see whether they can grow in the Southeast, often dispelling common beliefs about what can survive here. In the process, he and his crew have amassed more than 23,000 different plant types, including 1,000 different hosta, more than 1,500 different trillium, 750 different ferns, 650 different agave and more than 240 different Solomon’s seal.
Gardeners from all over the world travel to the nursery and garden, which spreads across former tobacco fields behind the main campus of Wake Technical Community College, to buy specific plants and learn how to nurture them. Having a place to buy rare and unusual plants, Avent said, helps reduce the likelihood that native plants will be poached from the wild.
While the 10-acre Raulston Arboetum is focused mostly on woody plants, Juniper Level is focused mostly on perennials, Avent said. In addition to their beauty in the landscape, he said, many of the plants offer medicinal promise. Researchers often come to the property to study the plants.
Avent said that as he looks for a way to turn the garden over to the university, he thinks about how fortunate he has been in running it for so long.
“It’s been a fascinating life,” he said. “I’m so blessed to have had the opportunity and to have met the people we have. They come out here, and we can show them what’s possible.”
Donations to the endowment can be made through N.C. State University’s website .