• Jennifer Jewell

NEW NATURALISM with PLANTSMAN KELLY NORRIS


FOODSCAPING - with Brie Arthur. Photo courtesy of Brie Arthur, all rights reserved.

At a time in the gardening world when we're hearing the phrase "ecologically functional gardens" and "ecological landscape design" with great regularity, Cultivating Place is pleased to be joined this week by Kelly Norris.


Kelly is an avid gardener, a former nursery owner and plant breeder, and an award-winning author who believes in the power of an "ecologically vibrant garden". Based in Des Moines, Iowa, he served as Director of Horticulture and Education at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden for the better part of a decade. Inspired by the extant native prairies of his home state, by his long career in plants to date, and by his work helping to grow the GDMBG, his newest book, "New Naturalism, Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden” (Cool Springs Press, 2021) helps all of us to demystify what an ecologically functional and still incredibly beautiful and gratifying home garden means, looks like, involves, and includes.


New Naturalism is a companion for us in cultivating a caring consciousness and is divided into two major parts, the "Nature of Planting" and "Planting Palettes". Under the Nature of Planting, Chapter 1 delves with scientific detail into the biology and ecology of plants in the context of nature’s operating systems like that of prairie, including how these systems work with soil, and how the plants within them interact with each other…and all of this helps to inform our own gardening decisions as to which plants of our region might go where and with whom in our garden.


Kelly Uses a sort of formula for planting design that includes a Matrix layer, a Structural layer, and finally Vignettes that help bring pop and dynamism to the whole.


The book provides solid quasi-recipe lists of plant combinations for these layers - a healthy matrix in a pleasing architectural arrangement with focal vignettes no matter where you garden. Kelly's visual and written examples from his own lovely home garden known as Three Oaks in Iowa to Colorado, Pennsylvania to England, Oregon to Ireland get us as reader/gardeners started with his vision, our jobs then become to learn more about the native plants of our own areas to put these combination concepts to best use.


Kelly's goal is to help us achieve a garden of beauty, of lively interaction with the wild, and not as a "profession of mastery but the ongoing pursuit of it."


I love this quote in the introduction: “No Gardener sets out to do wrong to the world by any active gardening but what if we were more conscious about doing right by it and just this little.” In a gardening moment where there is a lot of potential anxiety around the urgency of the biggest concepts like climate change and pollinator decline, Kelly provides just enough of a tweak in perspective on how we approach our gardening impulse to grant us easier access into this conversation about the role of gardeners through the fortitude and best intentions of our already established gardening passions and habits. Thank you for that, Kelly.


It’s a perfect listen for the long hot gardening days of the Summer Solstice season.


Photos courtesy of Kelly D. Norris, All Rights Reserved.


JOIN US again next week, when in anticipation of July, Cultivating Place is in conversation with Ali Meders Knight a Tribal Citizen of the Mechoopda Maidu in Northern California, speaking to us about her traditional ecological plant life journey and knowledge. Listen in!



Thinking out loud this week:


In New Naturalism, I especially enjoy Kelly’s appreciation for and defining of the idea of ruderal plants - those which thrive in disturbed areas like roadside verges and construction cuts. He returns multiple times throughout the book to how to make good garden advantage of such strength of character in grasses and wildflowers - for habit of repetition, for looks, and for wildlife habitat benefits.


As we linger in this season of Solstice, I like the idea of each of us really seeing, knowing, appreciating and learning from all the wild, weedy, resilient, resistant, scrappy, sassy and vital ruderal life around us.


Something else struck me about the native landscape - that little bit of intact, vestige – sometimes called relict – prairie that Kelly remembers vividly from his childhood. To this day, that prairie and its beauty and role in his world and his life continues to seed his imagination and motivation. Which is, I think, an instructive ripple-out relationship to notice – for ourselves, for others, for any young people in our lives.


When you think back, was there a native plant ecosystem that you knew? Loved? Felt related to? For me it was and remains the mixed ponderosa pine forest at elevation in Colorado – I smell the scent of it, feel the dry warmth of it in summer, the very very specific way the wind and the light move through the coniferous canopy and my whole body registers the thought of: HOME. If you have listened to Cultivating Place for any length of time, you know that for me, the ponderosa pine forests of my childhood were where I first encountered the divine – god if you will, resting there in the hushed pine straw beneath those trees. The rolling oak savannahs of Northern California where I have made my home for close to 15 years now is certainly a home away from home.


And you? Is there an ecological home base for you? Is there one you have introduced your young people to and hoped for them to imprint and bond with? I would love to hear your stories. If you follow me on Instagram, I will offer this question out this week in relation to Kelly’s episode. I will look forward to your ecological family niche associations. The more we know them, the more we see them, love them, and then perhaps offer ourselves and our gardening impulses in their service.


Happy Happy Summer (or Winter) solstice, garden friends - near and far…. We're in this garden hearted life together – with our planet, our plants, our places and each other - never forget it.



I hope you will share with me– I’d love to share your thoughts in our Cultivating Place community – a journal of what it means to be a gardener in these times in our places. Send me an email: Cultivating place @ gmail.com or share your memories past or present of your own ecological home base in comments with me on Instagram @cultivating_place.



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