JLBG's History & Milestones

Garden Development - In the Beginning

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). Approximately 20 minutes south of downtown Raleigh, NC, Juniper Level is the flat area around Juniper, NC, which is located between the rural farming communities of Willow Spring and Panther Branch township (founded 1868).

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.

The garden name originated from "junipers" which used to grow along nearby Juniper Branch. These plants were likely either Chamaecyparis thyoides or Juniperus virginiana. Conifers are not new to the area, since more than a ton of 90 million year old (Cretaceous Period) petrified conifers and sabal palm trees 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.

Garden Development - Design Philosophy

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.

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. The garden is designed for year-round interest with peak season from late April through mid-October.

Garden Development - The Soil

The native soil pH at JLBG was an acidic 3.2 pH sandy loam, with virtually no Potassium, no Nitrogen, and little microbial activity due to its use as a tobacco farm. All planting areas have now been raised to a pH of 6.0-6.5 and have been amended with 50% compost, lime, and Greensand. No chemical fertilizers have been used in the garden since 1986. All compost is now produced on site.

Garden Development - 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.

Excavation of the grotto garden also began in 1989 (all hand-dug by Avent) 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.

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.

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 Development 1996 - 1999

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 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.

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.

Garden Development 2000 - 2008

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.

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 south end of the property.

Also, 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' 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.

Garden Development 2008 - 2012

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

2008 also saw the relocation of shade perennials trials to a new 5,000 square foot structure on the back side of the property.

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.

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.

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.

Garden Development 2013 - 2014

Much like 2012, 2013 was also a pivotal year at JLBG. Tony married Anita A. White in 2013 and she established the Center for Mindfulness and Nonduality at Juniper Level Botanic Garden. Anita offers a nondual Christian perspective as she unfolds the perennial wisdom literature. She has taught meditation and mindfulness since 1992.

The Center for Mindfulness and Nonduality offers a serene refuge for individuals, inquiry groups, classes, and retreatants to simply notice and behold the impersonal nature of aware presence. Offering a wide array of tools, the Center points towards loosening the grip of knowing while demonstrating the body is not a solid and lasting personal entity as much as it may seem. The Center focuses on open-hearted meditative inquiry, an attitude of not-knowing, silence, walking meditations, and community, while welcoming what is appearing regardless of the texture. You can contact Anita about future classes and events through her website, www.nondu.org.

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.

Looking to the Future 2015-2018

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

In 2015, the Avents began looking for options to ensure that Juniper Level Botanical Garden would be preserved. That led to lengthy conversations with NC State University about Juniper Level Botanic Garden 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. You can read more about the future of JLBG/PDN here.

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 2014, 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 Butner family 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.

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. By the time, the project was completed in February 2019, the crevice garden contained approximately 200 tons of recycled concrete, of which 150 tons was from our on-site demolition work.

Constructions on the Avents 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.

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 an Oriental meditation garden (still in progress as of March 2022), among other features.

In spring 2018, the visitor entrance and parking area was reworked including a significant expansion. Planting began on the new 200’ long beds that were constructed between the parking lot and the service road along the north side of the garden. These bermed beds, which were constructed with 50% PermaTill, feature dryland plants that thrive without irrigation.

2019 (The Cracks Open)

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 handcut 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.

2020-2022 (The Pandemic Years)

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

During this time, our energies were focused on improving infrastructure, all toward the goal of improved worker 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. 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 2021, 6,500 tags have already been installed.

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.

View the pictoral history of JLBG.

Thanks for your support, which has made all this possible. -tony and anita