Icon - Arrow LeftAn icon we use to indicate a rightwards action. Icon - Arrow RightAn icon we use to indicate a leftwards action. Icon - External LinkAn icon we use to indicate a button link is external. Icon - MessageThe icon we use to represent an email action. Icon - Down ChevronUsed to indicate a dropdown. Icon - CloseUsed to indicate a close action. Icon - Dropdown ArrowUsed to indicate a dropdown. Icon - Location PinUsed to showcase a location on a map. Icon - Zoom OutUsed to indicate a zoom out action on a map. Icon - Zoom InUsed to indicate a zoom in action on a map. Icon - SearchUsed to indicate a search action. Icon - EmailUsed to indicate an emai action. Icon - FacebookFacebooks brand mark for use in social sharing icons. flipboard Icon - InstagramInstagrams brand mark for use in social sharing icons. Icon - PinterestPinterests brand mark for use in social sharing icons. Icon - TwitterTwitters brand mark for use in social sharing icons. Icon - Check MarkA check mark for checkbox buttons.
You are reading

Ask the Expert: Horticulturist Kelly D. Norris on the ‘New Naturalism’

Search

Ask the Expert: Horticulturist Kelly D. Norris on the ‘New Naturalism’

January 10, 2023

Gardeners are learning more every year about how our decisions can benefit the environment. We can plant more natives, say no to pesticides and chemical fertilizers, shrink our lawns, leave the leaves, and more. Excited to learn how garden designers are adopting this new knowledge, I spoke recently with Kelly D. Norris, the award-winning horticulturalist and author of New Naturalism (Cool Spring Press, 2021), about his naturalistic approach to design.

Norris was practically born with a trowel in his hands: He planted his first garden when he was just nine; for his 15th birthday, asked for and received an iris nursery, which he ran with his parents for more than a decade; and published four books about gardening well before turning 40. The former director of horticulture and education at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is now creating beautiful, environmentally responsible landscapes for clients. Starting next month, he’ll share his expertise with the New Naturalism Academy, a six-week online workshop on designing, planting, and growing what he calls “ecological vibrancy at home.” Below, he explains his gardening philosophy, offers advice on how to put it into practice, and shares some of his favorite plants.

Photography courtesy of Kelly D. Norris.

What is New Naturalism?

Norris ripped out his front yard lawn in Des Moines, Iowa, and replaced it with into a vibrant meadow, teaming with wildlife. He planted thousands of landscape plugs and then overseeded the area with species like purple lovegrass to fill in the gaps. It is a profusion of blooms with varieties including Penstemon digitalis, bursts of pale purply-pink Eastern beebalm (Monarda bradburiana), yellow golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Porteranthus trifoliatus ‘Pink Profusion’.
Above: Norris ripped out his front yard lawn in Des Moines, Iowa, and replaced it with into a vibrant meadow, teaming with wildlife. He planted thousands of landscape plugs and then overseeded the area with species like purple lovegrass to fill in the gaps. It is a profusion of blooms with varieties including Penstemon digitalis, bursts of pale purply-pink Eastern beebalm (Monarda bradburiana), yellow golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Porteranthus trifoliatus ‘Pink Profusion’.

I like to think of New Naturalism as a synthesis of horticulture and ecology, weaving together contemporary trends in Western horticulture towards a greater nature in gardens: planting with a sense of place, building gardens from foundations of native plants, supporting pollinators and local ecosystems, sequestering carbon and gardening for climate change, among others. As the turn of phrase goes, it’s not original. Keith Wiley used it as a subtitle in his book On the Wild Side: Experiments in New Naturalism, which espoused a gardening philosophy borne from his intimate experiences with wild plant communities and habitats. Further, naturalism has its own roots in philosophy and science, seeking to understand nature through observation and inquiry. My book of the same name addresses a home gardener with wilder yearnings and goes to lengths to demonstrate how they can achieve ecological plantings on an accessible scale.

How do you create a garden that’s “on the wild side”?

At a client’s garden in Ames, Iowa, Norris created a dry meadow gravel garden. He planted drifts of feathery Bouteloua gracilis ‘Honeycomb’, prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera), Rudbeckia ‘Sweet as Honey’, bright orange Asclepias tuberosa, quaking aspen trees into the sandy loam, and then topped the beds with five inches of ¼ inch pea gravel.
Above: At a client’s garden in Ames, Iowa, Norris created a dry meadow gravel garden. He planted drifts of feathery Bouteloua gracilis ‘Honeycomb’, prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera), Rudbeckia ‘Sweet as Honey’, bright orange Asclepias tuberosa, quaking aspen trees into the sandy loam, and then topped the beds with five inches of ¼ inch pea gravel.

You first embrace the idea that the garden is a system of flora and fauna working together in concert and that it’s going to change. That’s the beauty of it. To nurture a resilient garden is to play an infinite game, not a finite one. Resiliency means something more to me than sustainability because lots of things are sustainable with the right number of resources. The limitation on resources is what we must get serious about living with. A resilient garden is self-perpetuating and has a capacity for life that’s both independent of and legible despite the gardener (even though we’re going to keep planting, weeding and puttering). It’s about living in cooperation with the garden-of-place as opposed to having to tend or maintain it.

Why is this new style of planting important with climate change?

Norris was hired to create a landscape for the Blank Performing Arts Center, Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, the summer home of the Des Moines Metro Opera. The landscape includes a steep 45-degree slope. Ninety-five percent of the plants he added are native to Iowa and the upper Midwest, including the grass Bouteloua gracilis ‘Honeycomb’, yellow and maroon Coreopsis tinctoria, and golden Rudbeckia hirta ‘Indian Summer’. “The goal of the planting was to have it be of the same caliber as performances inside the building,” he says.
Above: Norris was hired to create a landscape for the Blank Performing Arts Center, Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, the summer home of the Des Moines Metro Opera. The landscape includes a steep 45-degree slope. Ninety-five percent of the plants he added are native to Iowa and the upper Midwest, including the grass Bouteloua gracilis ‘Honeycomb’, yellow and maroon Coreopsis tinctoria, and golden Rudbeckia hirta ‘Indian Summer’. “The goal of the planting was to have it be of the same caliber as performances inside the building,” he says.

We’re living in momentous times. We need a way forward that fosters a great reconnection of humanity to the natural world. We are nature, even if we’re also a force of disturbance to natural systems. Personally, I think of New Naturalism less as a style and more of a mode of gardening. Stylistically, it can look like anything because it’s a vision for gardens connected to the character and nature of place. Most of the so-called dream gardens of magazines and lore are tremendous concoctions of the human vision as applied to the land. New Naturalism seeks to reveal the land as the source of the creative vision, the power of planting authentically with place towards a more beautiful, functional planet. We should have gardens to live with, not just gardens that need work.

What should you look for when buying plants?

“Our living case study in sand and stress,” says Norris of this area of his garden, called the Romp, shown one year after installation. It includes tall pale yellow, prairie broomweed (Amphiachyris dracunculoides), frothy purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis), hazy green poofs of Cycloloma atriplicifolium, and crimson Salvia ‘Windwalker Royal Red’. Norris’s husband, who is also a horticulturalist, as well as an etymologist, “confirmed the presence of at least \27 superfamilies of wasps” in this half-acre plot. “One of the most common reactions I get from clients is just how ‘interesting’ and ‘engaging’ ecological landscapes are,” says Norris. He agrees, but he says, “You should do more than look at them; you should live in them.”
Above: “Our living case study in sand and stress,” says Norris of this area of his garden, called the Romp, shown one year after installation. It includes tall pale yellow, prairie broomweed (Amphiachyris dracunculoides), frothy purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis), hazy green poofs of Cycloloma atriplicifolium, and crimson Salvia ‘Windwalker Royal Red’. Norris’s husband, who is also a horticulturalist, as well as an etymologist, “confirmed the presence of at least 27 superfamilies of wasps” in this half-acre plot. “One of the most common reactions I get from clients is just how ‘interesting’ and ‘engaging’ ecological landscapes are,” says Norris. He agrees, but he says, “You should do more than look at them; you should live in them.”

Plants have incredible life histories worth getting to know. They are not objects, even if we can admire them for their beautiful complexity. When creating planting palettes, look for plants that have some connection to the place you garden. This might mean plants that are native, but also nearly native (think of them as ecological neighbors) that can adapt to the disturbed, ruderal circumstances of environments dominated by humans. With climate change, we need to be aware that the conditions we garden with are changing and will require us to expand our thinking 9 to 10 degrees in latitude south of where we live today (in the northern hemisphere). Adaptation and resilience are complex, but the bottom line is creating diverse plant communities that support linkages between many kinds of organisms.

What are some of your favorite native plants?

“We garden on glacial hardpan clay and it’s tedious,” admits Norris of his home garden in Des Moines. “The prairie is now entering its fifth growing season and only just beginning to settle into a series of patterns we can manipulate—Slow art of place.”
Above: “We garden on glacial hardpan clay and it’s tedious,” admits Norris of his home garden in Des Moines. “The prairie is now entering its fifth growing season and only just beginning to settle into a series of patterns we can manipulate—Slow art of place.”

I have the pleasure of working in many different environments and ecologies across the United States, but I’m natively a boy of the prairie. Warm-season grasses like big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) are some of the first native plants I observed in prairie remnants and adopted into my gardening, even as a kid. I’m also smitten with the hazy, diaphanous characters of prairies like flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), large-flowered bee blossom (Oenothera gaura) and annual fleabane (Erigeron annuus). These plants yield so much atmosphere and create a visual narrative about prairie that’s both aesthetic and ecological.

Tell me about the New Naturalism Academy. What can readers learn by attending?

Kelly D. Norris at home tending to his front yard meadow.
Above: Kelly D. Norris at home tending to his front yard meadow.

Whether you’re a home gardener or a horticultural professional, you’ll encounter new and emerging ideas for how to design, plant and steward a wild garden. The course is the latest iteration of my studio practice, a synthesis of experience, research and review of the scientific literature distilled into a gardener’s voice. I’ve been teaching about the applications of ecology to horticulture for many years now. It’s an exciting time to be learning new methods and modes of gardening as we come to realize how integrated we are to the environments we live and work. I always think mid- to late winter is the best time to offer a virtual workshop like this because it ends just in time for people to activate their ideas with the arrival of a new growing season.

For more on gardening “on the wild side,” see:

You need to login or register to view and manage your bookmarks.

Product summary  

Have a Question or Comment About This Post?

Join the conversation

v5.0