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?
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”?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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:
- Set Your Garden Free: Start By Rewilding One Half, Says’Reformed’ Landscape Designer Mary Reynolds
- Ask the Expert: Poppy Okotcha on the Wild Edible Garden
- Ask the Expert: Regenerative Organic Gardener Emily Murphy on How to Rewild Your Landscape