First land purchase in 1988

A flat tobacco field transformed by a strong vision

Our history

Juniper Level Botanic Garden, JLBG, was established in 1986 when Raleigh native Tony Avent and his wife Michelle purchased a 2.2 acre abandoned sandy loam tobacco field (9241 Sauls Rd.) in the community of Juniper in Southern Wake County (central North Carolina).

A flat tobacco field transformed by a strong vision

Our history

Juniper Level Botanic Garden, JLBG, was established in 1986 when Raleigh native Tony Avent and his wife Michelle purchased a 2.2 acre abandoned sandy loam tobacco field (9241 Sauls Rd.) in the community of Juniper in Southern Wake County (central North Carolina).

Juniper Level

The garden name originated from “junipers” which used to grow along nearby Juniper Branch. These plants were Chamaecyparis thyoides. Conifers are not new to the area, since more than a ton of 90 million year old (Cretaceous Period) petrified conifers and palms have been excavated from the JLBG property. The southern term “Level” is used for the flat areas between creeks, hence the community name, Juniper Level.

Panther Branch Rosenwald School

Historical landmark

The community of Juniper is also home to a National Historical Site, a preserved Rosenwald School, located just a few hundred feet north of the gardens. The Panther Branch Rosenwald School at Juniper Level, which operated from 1926-1956, is owned by the Juniper Level Missionary Baptist Church, and was fully restored in 2021. Rosenwald schools, a partnership which began in 1912, between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, worked to fund and build safe and clean schools for descendants of freed slaves, during a time when our society was sadly still segregated. JLBG is proud to be a community partner with the Panther Branch Rosenwald School.

Soil preparation

For the first eight years, Tony would return home from his day job as Landscape Director of the NC State Fairground each day with a truckload of composted leaves, which would be spread and later roto-tilled into the undernourished sandy loam. This continued from 1986-1994, when he gave up his day job to focus on building the nursery. By that time, on-site composting had evolved, using debris from land clearing, along with purchased organic waste products.

Today, we generate all of our compost on-site, composed of garden maintenance debris from JLBG, shredded leaves from the collection efforts of the adjacent Town of Garner contractors, and plants we kill in the nursery. This is mixed using commercial loaders at 50/50 with our native sandy loam.

Garden design

The garden was designed using the philosophy of “drifts of one” to house and showcase a diverse collection of ornamental plants in an aesthetic and relaxed setting. Juniper Level Botanic Garden has evolved into one of the largest ex-situ plant collections in the world.
There were no drawn plans for the garden as formal planting plans may limit creativity and often leave a garden without an essence or soul. Tony wandered the site for months, with handfuls of colored survey flags, listening to the energy of the site for inspiration where to locate beds, paths, and garden features.

While the original site was fairly flat, berms and elevation changes were created by moving soil around on-site to increase planting area and add aesthetic relief changes to the garden. Habitat and microclimate creation became an important feature of the garden, allowing us to grow plants which normally would not be adaptable to our climate. The garden is designed for year-round interest with peak season from late April through mid-October.

Initial Garden Construction: 1986 – 1995

The initial construction project included an underground irrigation system, a second well, and a gazebo well-house. The construction of numerous raised beds and initial plantings occurred in 1989.

Outlines of the first garden beds

Excavation of the grotto garden also began in 1989 (all hand-dug by Tony) and grotto construction was completed in November 1994 under the direction of the former Gallucci-Halligan Sculpture Studio of Greensboro. The grotto walk and back patio areas were completed by the skilled staff at Envisions Pavers of Raleigh in 1995.

Grotto site during excavation
Grotto site during excavation
Finished grotto
Finished grotto

Plant Delights Nursery was also established in 1986 to provide a source of unique, unusual, and native perennial plants for passionate gardeners and to provide a funding source for JLBG for further plant research, plant exploration, plant breeding, and garden maintenance. That continues, with Plant Delights Nursery currently providing 100% of the funding (currently at $500,000 annually) for Juniper Level Botanic Garden.

Customers shopping during Open Nursery and Garden days
Customers shopping during Open Nursery and Garden days

Our first Open House

From 1988 through 1994, six greenhouses were built on the original property. In 1989, JLBG and Plant Delights Nursery held the first of the now-famous weekend Open Nursery and Garden Days, with all plants displayed for sale in the newly constructed garage.

In 1991, Plant Delights Nursery published its first mail-order catalog, offering a selection of JLBG’s new, rare, native, and unusual perennials to plant enthusiasts nationwide. In subsequent years, many new features were added to the initial garden, including a woodland garden, a bog garden, several rock gardens, a southwest garden, a hardy tropical garden, a sunken garden, a garden waterfall, grotto garden, numerous creeks, along with several perennial and mixed borders.

The bog gardens serve as retention and purification areas for nursery and garden runoff but are also fed by natural springs, with flow regulated through a small pump. Bog and marginal plants serve as a natural filtration system allowing recycled water to be naturally purified.

Garden expansion

In April 1996, the Avents purchased an additional 5.25 acres (9249 Sauls Rd.) of adjoining property and moved into the home on the new property. This new land allowed the expansion of the nursery production area, two additional wells and the construction of an expanded display garden as the collections continued to grow.

To level the site for greenhouses, 600 dump truck loads of soil were moved from the east end of the property. The soil was used to construct numerous raised beds including a miniature mountain. New garden features included a much-expanded 4-5′ tall alpine scree bed, a larger southwestern landscape, a hardy tropical garden, and expanded shade gardens. Also constructed on the new property were expanded in-ground evaluation beds for both new shade and sun plants. A unique 200 foot driveway perennial border was installed along the garden exit drive in 1996 as well.

9249 back garden with soil piles, 1996

In 1997, the original residence and garage on the first property were converted to nursery offices, shipping areas, and an Education Center. The function of the JLBG/Plant Delights Education Center is to offer outreach programs, educate gardeners—both locally and nationally—about all aspects of ornamental horticulture. A combination of classroom instruction and hands-on training in the garden provide an informative atmosphere for learning.

9249 House from Metasequoia allee view, planting beds preparation

Second expansion

In 2001, the garden expanded once again, as the Avents were able to acquire an additional 11 acres of adjacent property, bringing our total acreage to 18.5 acres. This new purchase allowed for expanded parking for Open Nursery and Garden Days as well as more production, research, plant trials and evaluations, and further expansion of the plant collections. Also, in 2001, the Golden Metasequoia allee was planted near the Avent’s new home. These were some of the first golden metasequoia plants to arrive in the US from Japan and are now considered to be some of the largest in the country.

Metasequoia alley, Fall 2003
Metasequoia allee, Fall 2003

2003 will be remembered as the year our open house parking lot flooded. We sit on a mass of underground springs, and after an abnormally wet winter, we found ourselves approaching spring with a parking lot that was unparkable. Quickly, we purchased almost a mile of drainage pipe, and embarked on an ambitious project to install an underground drainage system. This, combined with many hundred tons of gravel allowed us to be able to move forward with our planned open house.

In 2004, 10,000 square feet of this new area was dedicated to trillium trials and production. In 2005, the research area was expanded by installing a Geophyte Test Bed on the East end of the property.

Trillum propagation and trials beds
Trillum propagation and trials beds
Sunken pond excavation complete, 2003
Sunken pond excavation complete, 2003

2003 also saw the construction of a retention pond for nursery irrigation runoff on the south end of the new property.  Here, excess water from the irrigation of thirteen greenhouses to the east, was piped into a dug holding pond. Once the water emerges from the pipes, it traverses a planted bog filtration system, which cleans the nutrients from the water. Around the retention pond, dry stack rock walls were built, along with a set of concrete stairs to access the adjacent raised bed plantings.

Joe and Gary from Envisions Paving, 2008

In 2008, the final stage of the Waterfall/Recycling Project was finally completed with the addition of a paver walk through the Sunken Garden, thanks to Envisions Paving of Raleigh. 

Sunken garden paved paths completed, 2008
Sunken garden paved paths completed, 2008

Mt. Michelle construction

In 2004 construction began on Mt. Michelle and Mystic Falls, a new waterfall/bog garden bio-retention area, featuring an ornamental pond, paved patio, winding steps, a walled rock garden, and a 20 feet tall waterfall, constructed with the expertise of Asheboro’s Two Oaks Studio. In 2006, Cattail Bridge over the recycling stream was installed by Gallucci Studios of Greensboro, NC. 

A large pump to feed the waterfall was installed at the sunken retention pond to the south of the waterfall. It pumps the recaptured nursery irrigation water to the top of Mystic Falls, where it falls aerated and winds its way back into the retention pond.

The next large project was the installation of pavers between the house at 9249 Sauls and Mt. Michelle. Again, we called on our friends at Envisions Paving, who made short work of the project.

Souto garden

In 2008, 3.6 additional adjoining acres (9313 Sauls Rd.) were purchased for expansion of shade trials and future gardens named after former neighbor, the late Eddy Souto. 2010 saw the initial preparations for the Souto Garden beds and in 2011 JLBG expanded the on-site composting facility to allow for increased production. That acquisition expanded Juniper Level Botanic Garden to 22 acres.

Souto park before construction, 2008
Souto Garden before construction, 2008

Between 2008 and 2012 Plant Delights Nursery dramatically expanded field production capacity for rare perennials with longer production times. This space was/is shared with JLBG research, trials, and plant breeding evaluations.

View of Souto garden towards north, 2015
View of Souto garden towards north, 2015

In 2015 the Souto Garden opened for visitors, giving the garden its first full sun section in many years.

View of Souto garden from west gate, 2015
View of Souto garden from west gate, 2015
Tony and Michelle Avent

A tragic loss

2012 was a sad year for Tony and the staff as their beloved and dear friend Michelle M. Avent passed away after a long and painful decline with an aggressive form of breast cancer (Oct. 31, 1956 – February 11, 2012). Michelle managed the administrative side of the nursery from its inception in 1986 until she was too ill to work. Her contributions to the nursery and gardens cannot be quantified.

New beginnings

2013 was a pivotal year at JLBG on a personal level – a new union was celebrated of Tony and Anita A. White. Anita and Tony grew up together, but had not seen each other in 40 years, although Anita’s dad and Tony’s mom saw each other regularly at the church in the interim.

Anita brought a very different perspective about open space and energy flow to JLBG. In fall 2014, at Anita’s suggestion, a 200’ holly hedge was removed between the original two properties. This opened up the area, both visually and energetically, allowing for much more diversity in planting. Jeremy Schmidt was given the opportunity to showcase his amazing rock stacking work, which resulted in and amazing new planting area between nursery greenhouses 8 and 13.

Yde horse farm

In 2015, the Avents began looking for options to ensure that Juniper Level Botanic Garden would be preserved. That led to lengthy conversations with NC State University about JLBG becoming a sister institution to the JC Raulston Arboretum. The papers finalizing the Avents’ donation of Juniper Level Botanic Garden and Plant Delights Nursery to NC State was signed in 2016.

As JLBG preservation talks progressed in 2015, it became clear the Avents would need to vacate their current home in the middle of the nursery and gardens, occupied since 1996. In fall of 2015, the Avents purchased the adjacent 6 acre Yde horse farm (9205 Sauls Rd.) to build a new home outside of the public area of JLBG. Two acres of the property were dedicated to parking lot expansion, while the remaining four would become the new home and garden. This brings the size of JLBG to 28 acres.

Once the farm was purchased, the existing house and barn were given away to a family in Butner, NC, via Craig’s List. The house and barn were both partially deconstructed, then moved to their new home. The remaining concrete debris from the house foundation, barn, and parking pad were cut and stacked on pallets to be used in what would become our new signature crevice garden.

Urbanite stockpile
Urbanite stockpile
Crevice garden construction

In fall 2015, also at Anita’s urging, the 300’ holly hedge along our exit drive was also removed, clearing a 4,500 square foot area. Over the next 3 years, this would become the world’s largest crevice garden, all using recycled concrete, and all designed and installed by Jeremy Schmidt, our Grounds and Research Supervisor at the time.

Modernist paradise

Constructions on the Avent’s retirement home began in late winter 2016 and was completed in late fall of the same year. House design was by local modernist architect Frank Harmon, whose late wife, Judy, was a horticulture classmate of Tony at NC State. Tony and Anita moved into their new home in late 2016, followed by the conversion of their former home into office space for both the JLBG staff as well as the Plant Delights Nursery staff. The old house also contains the JLBG library and two bedrooms used for intern housing.

9205 Aerial view (image credit J. Sumerell)
9205 Aerial view (image credit J. Sumerell)

The gardens, which continue to be installed around the Avent’s new home will not be open to visitors, except during very limited endowment fundraising events. This new home garden section contains a three-tiered patio (completed 2018), a 550’ long stream that controls water runoff (completed 2021), and a meditation garden (still in progress), among other features.

Crevice garden

After three years and lots of broken concrete, the 300’ long crevice garden was complete. The project, designed as a habitat for ultra dryland, alkaline-loving plants, comprises nearly 200 tons of recycled concrete. Each piece was hand-cut on-site by Jeremy Schmidt, and installed by him and his staff. We were also fortunate to enlist the assistance of crevice garden experts Michael Peeden (NY), and Kenton Seth (CO), both of whom shared their artistry for portions of the project. We’ve been assured this is now one of the largest crevice gardens in the world, and one of only a few made from concrete.

Jeremy Schmidt working on crevice garden
Michael Peden
Building the crevices

Unique habitat

Located at the east end of Michelle’s Garden, the Crevice Garden parallels the vehicular exit drive. The first two sections at the north end, were finished in 2017. Instead of planting in soil, plants here are grown in pure PermaTill, a pumice-like, popped slate material, mined in Salisbury, NC. The pH is just over 8.0, so we chose plants that love or tolerate alkaline soils. These sections are filled with an array of agaves and cactus, many of which are derived from our own breeding program. In between those are an array of Arilbred iris, which are considered ungrowable in the hot, humid Southeast US. Other plants like the drought-requiring Alloberberis trifoliata (Silver Barberry) thrive here, and the virtually ungrowable Texas native, Penstemon baccharifolius (Rock Beardtongue) also are right at home. In one small section, plants are planted in pure Dolomitic Lime, right out of the bag – one of our more interesting experiments. This crevice garden area almost never receives any supplemental irrigation.

Crevice garden completed
South section of the Crevice garden completed

The Pandemic years: 2020-2022

The world blinked in March 2020, when word of the impending COVID pandemic ground much of humankind to a halt. While travel and socializing took a hit, gardening soared as people stayed close to home and reconnected with the outdoors.

As the crevice garden project wrapped up, the energy of the garden crew switched back to the development of Anita’s Garden.  This included the conclusion of our irrigation installation, the construction of the Japanese Garden, the 550’ long recirculating stream, and filling in much of the still blank planting space.

 Japanese garden view from south end
Japanese garden view from south end

During this time, our energies were also focused on improving infrastructure, all toward the goal of improved staff efficiency as well as the visitor experience. In 2020, we built our first shop/storage building, which took the place of several smaller, overcrowded temporary structures.

New maintenance shop/storage building
New maintenance shop/storage building

In 2022, we expanded our plant propagation facilities with the construction of an on-site tissue culture lab, which will assist with our ex-situ conservation efforts as well as to support the needs of the nursery division.

In 2021, the gardens were able to purchase a laser engraver for making permanent tags for all plants in JLBG. As of the end of 2023, over 22,000 tags have been installed.

In the older garden sections, Jeremy constructed a significant new rock garden on the west side of Mt. Michelle. This area had been devoid of significant horticultural interest, so several tons of rock was added to create planting pockets for an array of lithophytes, and other woodland rock denizens.

JLBG vs 540

Looking into the future

In 2021, construction of Raleigh’s new outer loop highway resulted in the loss of .80 acres of property through eminent domain. JLBG constructed over 2,000’ of raised berms, which have been planted with a diverse array of evergreens to help block sound, noise, and other pollutants from the new highway. On the bright side, there will be four adjacent outparcels totaling nearly 50 acres, which should become available to purchase once the highway is complete…if funds can be secured. This would be a significant piece for the future sustainability of JLBG, so keep your fingers crossed.

Our ambitions are soaring and our impact is felt throughout the horticultural world. It is our sincere hope that you will find the garden a place for learning, relaxation, enjoyment and inspiration. Join us in our efforts to safeguard this one-of-a-kind garden for all generations by supporting our efforts to fully fund our endowment.

Tony and Anita (Image credit: Chris Beytes)

Thank you for your support, which has made all this possible.

Tony and Anita Avent
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