There’s no question the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted businesses around the world. As certain industries overcome this challenge and adjust to a “new normal,” one particular industry seems to be flourishing — home gardening.
Tony Avent, a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumnus who studied horticulture under J.C. Raulston, is the owner of Plant Delights Nursery — a mail-order nursery that specializes in selling rare and unusual perennials collected from around the globe.
As people started sheltering in place, they began looking for ways to stay busy or entertained. Enter one of America’s top leisure past times — gardening!
“We saw a 30% decrease in business because everybody was in shock. Nobody knew what was happening,” Avent said. A week later, things turned around and quickly.
“There has been a dramatic uptick in business that has been pretty insane.” Avent says many of the mail-order nursery businesses have seen an increase in business. He attributes that increase to the fact that people are spending more time at home due to COVID-19.
“We hear from people constantly that their gardens have never looked better. They’ve never spent as much time on them. …When everybody’s busy, people are not as tuned in to plants as they are now. They always like them, but they never quite have the time to garden.” Now they do.
In addition to passing the time, gardening can be therapeutic and relaxing, Avent says. He quotes the work of the late Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist who discussed the healing powers of gardens.
“He would take people that were unresponsive to any treatments, mental health patients, to the New York Botanical Garden and he would see responses,” Avent says. “That’s really why we have gardens at hospitals and retirement homes today. He realized the impact that (gardens) had on the human psyche. Yes, food crops are important for our physical health, but isn’t mental health as important as physical health?”
Avent believes people want to enjoy themselves and decompress from the stresses associated with the pandemic and that is why mail-order nurseries have seen a surge in ornamental plant purchases.
Avent’s customers can usually pick up their plants from his nursery 24 to 48 hours after ordering online. Plants that are shipped require a little extra attention and thus a little more time. That’s because Avent wants to make sure each plant survives the trip and his customers are happy.
“We have specially designed boxes and inserts to hold the plants safely. There are a lot of things you have to know about boxing plants. The moisture has to be just right. If it’s too dry, the plant arrives dead. If it’s too wet, it can arrive rotted. So moisture is absolutely critical,” Avent said.
Because it requires additional work, Avent’s nursery is one of the few nurseries in America that ship plants worldwide. Before a plant can be shipped overseas, they have to be washed, scrubbed and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure the plant adheres to each country’s regulations.
“There can’t be any soil, because soil holds pathogens and each country doesn’t want somebody else’s diseases or insects coming in,” Avent explained.
“We just had this lovely lady from Italy, she’s 87 years old and a collector of a plant called Aspidistra, or the cast iron plant, reach out to us. We happen to have the largest collection in the world. We recently got an email from her letting us know the plants we shipped are doing great and how wonderful it was, while she was quarantined, to have these plants. To get that feedback from people is really quite incredible.”
Preserving the Future
And Avent’s work is incredible, too. His mail-order nursery actually funds Juniper Level Botanic Garden, a 28-acre research and education garden in Raleigh. Established in 1988, the garden promotes and preserves plant diversity by bridging the gap between botany and horticulture. The garden conducts plant study, identification, educational outreach and global plant exploration. It also selects, breeds and propagates new and unique perennials to share with plant researchers, botanic gardens and gardeners around the world.
Avent’s mission has always been plant conservation and studying plants. He and his wife thought the best way to preserve that mission after they’re gone is to give Juniper Level to NC State.
“We currently have one of the top five plant collections in the country. There’s a lot of really valuable genetics, many of which may have potential for medicines,” he said. “There are so many opportunities.”
Avent said they have begun the process of setting up an endowment through the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation.
“Once the endowment is full, then we will hire a full-time director and I can fade into the background as our mission continues. This will be a very sustainable venture for the future for NC State.”