As Bob Hyland, founding father of the horticultural celebration he christened "Plant-O-Rama" was thanking the packed auditorium at the morning session for coming to the 21st annual horticultural trade show, jobs fair, and symposium he conceived 30 years ago - it was worth noting that as he introduced the keynote speaker, Kelly D. Norris - that the young “hort-hero” is not yet 30 years old!
At the same time, Kelly is at the top of the Hort game - a leader extraordinaire in what has become known as the “Emergents” - meaning those young, up-and-coming leaders in horticulture.
I daresay it’s not far off the mark to affirm the Emergents and Kelly, especially, have totally “arrived.”
Kelly is a powerhouse plantsman with experienced knowledge -- so much so that I got to wondering later -- perhaps he is the long-lost prodigy or better yet - a reincarnation of Carl Linnaeus. While no doubt Kelly would have “grown” and “blossomed” on his own merits - (sorry - too rich to not use the hort references...), Kelly and his Emergent cohorts were introduced in a Rodale Press feature reported as the “next generation” of horticulturists by our favorite garden and hort author, Ken Druse.
(I have every one of Ken’s books - most autographed - and they are always relevant and delightful.) Thanks, Ken!
(And I’ve been buying the Ellen Hoverkamp scanner photography art showcased in his recent, gorgeous book, Natural Companions: The Garden Lover's Guide to Plant Combinations
Left to Right: Me, Kelly Norris, Ken Druse
More than just plant knowledgeable - Kelly hits the hort “hat trick” of taxonomy/botany/design); moreover he possesses an old-soul dynamic and confidence not to mention, authenticity, that both astonishes and delights garden enthusiast audiences.
Kelly manages to blend solid science with dreamy experience. In fact, that is the essence of his charm. He’s never that “gotcha” horticulturist that is more keen to snap you into ID’ing a plant with its botanical latin name (which he of course does with professional modesty and frequency); rather he is one to provide that essential information in a practical and respectful way while he shares his cosmic love and adoration of all that the plant kingdom has to offer and teach us.
Plus there is that infectious enthusiasm. This man can’t help teach us about “gardening with a purpose.”
For me as a writer and author, I’m also gobsmacked by Kelly’s language and vocabulary skills. He positively radiates - shimmers - and glows - with redolent phrases, adjectives, and verbs -- to better captivate and intrigue his audiences. This is a rare talent and his linguistic skills and oratory mastery captures, teaches, and excites us - all at the same time -- while never stooping to snarky (well, maybe a bit) or ever stooping to a holier-than-thou hort elitist platform that can be off-putting to many plant and garden design enthusiasts.
Planting for the Future
What Did Kelly charm us with under the rubric of “Planting for the Future”?
He talked about gardening as an “experience.”
There are things that increase the experience - and that is “essence of a garden’s style. “Plants should not just survive but they should thrive,” he admonished.
Gardens need to have a purpose. It was enlightening and refreshing to hear that we need to garden with a purpose. We need to savor our plants and the environment.
Kelly made a point that I personally think needs no amplification - which is that today’s gardeners need to have the passion that today’s chef’s possess. He cited how chefs are focused on ingredients - and that gardeners and landscape designers need to have that same cobra-like focus on using the best plant ingredients in the garden as chefs do in the kitchen and restaurant. I write about food and drink - coming at it from the garden perspective - and I can tell you that my work researching and reporting on farm-to-table and garden-to-glass - has its own struggles and triumphs - all of it based on the ability to source and spec ingredients - by and large those that are plant-based and come from reliable growers.
While it makes sense that food growers and farmers may have led the way because we eat these ingredients - there's that intimate relationship with a chef's culinary creations - there is also a growing awareness about the need to not only bring local and seasonal cut flowers into the home, but there has been a long-standing movement to use native plants in garden design.
From my perspective, the problem isn’t the gardeners, but rather the plant nurseries that don’t stock the natives - they cater to the fashions and vagaries of what - the market? I am confounded as to how nurseries select, grow, and provide nursery stock. While many will readily admit they prefer not to sell exotics, or “invasives” - i.e. non-natives - they feel they must, because it sells.
I personally feel that it’s a closed loop - meaning that too many “landscapers” are merely “mow, blow, and go” guys -- and yes most are men -- and that they don’t know anything about the plants so they’ll take whatever is available at the nurseries - thereby inadvertently adding to the "it sells" strategy. Furthermore, the horticultural industry was too influenced by exotic plants that folks of means could afford to plant at their country houses and estates - so all fell in line to stock them…
Here in America, we gave short shrift to our native prairie grasses until a Dutchman, Piet Oudolf deemed them new and exotic for our gardens and parks, and suddenly they become the ornamental darlings they are today.
I go on..
A really exciting element that Kelly presented and got the plant juices flowing - is to discover native and local plants “in the wild” that can thrive in our gardens. We can see how these plants have survived through climate chaos to grow in any number of “crazy situations” - and that because they can readily adapt, will work better in urban environments.
See, the thing is that even though we have a yearning for all things rural, more of us are living in urban worlds - and that’s only going to increase in the future. The plants that have proven themselves to be resilient and ecologically superior - are our friends. Let’s embrace them.
Plants are opportunists -- and context can be informational with a nod to ecology.
Kelly says he never uses wood-based mulch at the Des Moines Botanical Garden where he serves as the Garden’s first-ever director of horticulture. Instead he uses plants. Sedges are green mulch! Natural plant mulch will repair soil, capture nutrients, build biomass, according to Kelly.
He says there is a natural history to the plant combinations and ingredients he employs there so there is also that “sense of place” or Genius loci.
Lesson learned is we shouldn’t forget that bottom layer of garden design. Plants can be that foil or cover for other plants as they go in and out of their “profile” or “portrait” moments…
Think 3-D and the art of planting.
Further, Kelly suggested we garden designers - and by extension - you - consider scale. Most US home have a small footprint for the yard, all things considered, that is approximately 8,900 square feet - including the house. He pointed out that here is that enduring, sterile nature of suburbia with its endless lawn and foundation plantings… I think this started in the 1950’s and we’ve done so little or nothing to change our perception of American success from that vision of home ownership/lawn/flag of the housing developments that were created for returning GI’s and their families. Isn’t it time we take gardening back to some of the natural plant companions that were plowed under to make way for these housing developments on a mass scale?! We can rediscover the beauty and charm of our native and natural plants, for sure.
Despite a garden's small size, Kelly cites the paramount need to provide more plant diversity -- noting that in some of his recent designs he’s included more 24 different species in a garden no more than 150 square feet. We need diversity in our plant portfolio just as we need it in our financial portfolio!
Native Plant Examples:
Examples Kelly provided included Eupatorium perfoliatum ‘Milk ‘n Cookies’ - an oh-so beautiful Boneset (burgundy foliage and white flowers) that “just need some friends to “lean on,” he joked. Don’t we all?
And like fashion on the runway - let’s think about New -- not those same ol’ petunias that one finds at the big box stores. Kelly showed a number of glamourous, strong dames including Silphium perfoliatum (Cup Plant)- Rosinweed that is a native, sunflower-like perennial is “resilient architecture,” stunning and has a lot of “sex appeal,” according to the Kelly. These plants moreover, hold the soil. Here the plantsman cited the tragedy of the Dust Bowl and how irresponsible plantings and arrogant development wiped away the top layers of soil. On the other hand, native Silphium has 10-15 inches of roots - a resource that does double duty. Plus the Land Institute and others are using Silphium to store carbon as well as to extract its oil for cooking and fuel. (Some claim it can be used with rice and
molasses to avoid pregnancy!)
The aster family is truly breathtaking. I love its members and cultivars; using a variety of these colorful and strong plants in many of my garden designs.
Other water-wise plants Kelly suggested include, Eryngium leavenworthii - from the carrot family - this thistle or Sea Holly is strong and adds a showy and textured element to the garden palette.
Another example Kelly showed was the agave - in particular the Mangave ‘Lavender Lady.’ What a dame! This plant offers a big, smoky rosette - and rapid growth. Geum triflorium, ‘Prairie Smoke’ was another beauty.
Kelly got us excited about being in a time where we are on the verge of “discovering” an entire new palette of plants.
It got me to thinking that while in past generations the adventuring plant hunter was revered because he found ever-more exotic plant species to bring back to our environment - the new plant hunter will instead research and find those hearty and beautiful plants right in our own landscapes - those that have learned to thrive and provide. Just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz said - “Next time I go looking for my heart’s desire - I won’t go looking further than my own backyard.” I’ve referenced those pearls of wisdom all my life but now it seems especially apropos. And it helps this reference that Dorothy was from the Great Plains - just like so many of these plant prodigies.
Kelly continued to provide plantings with a purpose and suggested that we design using plant “communities” using keystone species to achieve a kind of ecological minimalism.
And remember that “Plants provide Beauty and Purpose.”
Landscape design is one of the true luxuries that appreciates with time. Unlike other art though - it is dynamic -- it changes every day, bringing added, newfound joy.
Edible Urban Oases
The irrepressible Brie Arthur - another "Emergent" - spoke about edibles and the Foodscape Revolution which also happens to be the name of her first book - out later this year and now in presale.
She describes herself a true “plant nerd” but also claims to love insects in an “irrational way!” You can’t help but want to hug this woman. She advocates for living green walls -- suggested that if the Mexican “wall” was built using green, fresh vegetables, and herb edibles - she’d be all for it!
She points out how we need green infrastructure and with it we can surely feed the world. And our soils and souls. She suggests using common spaces of communities and streetscapes for planting edible ornamentals.
I’ve used edibles as ornamentals for more than decade for garden clients and they love the color and texture -- and the taste! It’s a delight to group edibles by color and season.
Brie detailed how to grow organics, and use hydroponics as well as aeroponics -- employing a soil-less growing medium - a space saving strategy that works especially for tight urban spaces.
A great suggestion Brie offered is to use edibles at the front of an ornamental garden -- within easy reach and much better for the garden bed than that wood mulch; thus adding more biological diversity, as well.
Brie refers to rice and blueberries as the “gateway” plants to edible foodscaping! She showed chefs at upscale country clubs growing ornamental - and edible - rice (purple and red) with astonishing and tasty results!
Later, we walked the trade show element of Plant-O-Rama. Some of my favorites there included:
Pennoyer Newman -- Virginia and her custom, classic garden containers and fountains that are always the talk of the show. Love the collections -- and Virginia!
Rare Find Nursery - This Garden State plant nursery offers unusual (compared to the aforementioned, nameless nurseries) and intriguing natives that add glamour to every garden I’ve sourced from Rare Find. The container ‘Rochester’ witch hazel they showcased at their table was intoxicating -- strongest of the fragrant witch hazels -- I’d never smelled one so divine. I once gave my girlfriend Jelena a ‘Jelena’ witch hazel for her birthday!
Curb Allure - These metal tree guards are handsome and offer great utility. I first saw these creations a few years back and admire their look and their smart attention that work for the plants in the beds (including a “Pup-Pee Protector.) Too often the beds are lined with hardscaping that doesn’t allow for the water to reach the plants. This solves the issue.
Thank you, Plant-O-Rama.