Plant exciting foliage and your garden won't be boring

Tony Avent, plant explorer, author and owner of Plant Delights in Raleigh, N.C., was a passionate and crazy young plantsman when he spoke at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in 1988, a year after he began his mail order nursery business. Now - middle-aged with rock star good looks - think Sting, he's grown into something better. A man with convictions about plants conveyed with infectious passion.

The Southeastern Horticultural Society hosted Tony last week at the Atlanta History Center. A study, he began, reported homeowners' least favorite activity is gardening and they want to do less.

"And why wouldn't they want to do less? Most landscapes are boring," he said. But it's not their fault their landscape is boring. For too long, he insists, landscape architecture schools have taught a rule about having no more than 12 types of plants in a landscape.

The era of foundation plantings, bushes pruned into green meatballs, and a yard should end. His solution? More plants. He's bodacious with a mission. Trees, shrubs, groundcovers and perennials to banish plant boredom. Plantings designed to entice the eye, nose, foot and delight the intellect with pretty foliage, blooms, fragrance, stems and shapes. Combining plants, for Tony, means contrasting or complementing color, form and foliage, without limit. Life is short, so forget the rule of 12.

Purple leaves next to green leaves, big leaves next to small leaves and round shapes next to pyramidal shapes. Also, choose plant placement for mature size and you won't have to prune. And don't plant anything without preparing the soil. Good soil and organic mulches rid landscapes of the need for fertilizer. Most fertilizers are toxic to fungi and groundwater. Tony was organic before it was cool.

Plant sex is not subdued in Tony's landscape. Writing about the parents of Pink Flamingos muhly grass, "... a conjugal encounter on a warm Texas night and the result was ..." About a plant search, "In 2005, we were botanizing north of Hanoi and after finding our road washed out, we retreated through a series of uninteresting back roads until sighting this bizarre form of the common Alocasia macrorrhizos (elephant ear) in the front yard of a small home."

Tony makes you feel like you're part of the story, and knowing all the best gossip, by having a landscape full of plant delights. He also gave me an epiphany. I must give a fabulous plant, and its story, to two or three non-gardening friends each year. (Yes, I'll do the planting.) It will test Tony's theory about more plants for those not liking to garden. It will be a pass along plant but hopefully more. Perhaps they'll be infected with plant passion.

Stone Mountain resident Tara Dillard designs, installs and writes about gardens. Her most recent books include "Garden Paths and Stepping Stones" and "Perennials for Georgia." E-mail her at taradillard@agardenview.biz or visit www.agardenview.biz.