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Between the Weeds


The Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ 2023 Spencer Lecture speaker, horticulturist Kelly D. Norris shares insights on his ecological work, the roots and inspiration for his passion projects, and wisdom to home gardeners.


Modern plantsman, designer, and award-winning author, Kelly D. Norris is considered a leading horticulturist of his generation. His work in gardens has been featured in The New York Times, Organic Gardening, Better Homes and Gardens, Martha Stewart Living, Fine Gardening, and Garden Design. His passion for planting at the intersections of horticulture and ecology has culminated in a new book New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden, which debuted in 2021 from Cool Springs Press. Kelly will share how he applies his passion for plants and planting to home gardens, providing practical, accessible, and inspiring ideas for landscapes on the wild side at the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ 2023 Spencer Lecture.

Q: How would you sum up your inspiration for your latest book, New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden?

A: I have had a lifelong fascination with plants both in gardens and wild places. This current has run through my career, taking on different forms in practice. 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.

Q: Do you have a favorite project that you have worked on? What did you like about it? What was the biggest take away from this project?

A: I’m not sure I could pick a single favorite project from my portfolio because each commission affords some new and different opportunity. However, I’m usually most excited about what’s up next. I like the challenge of understanding places for planting. This site-specific approach allows me to go deep into natural and cultural histories, plant ecology, and gardening. I can have a million creative ideas, but I’m most curious about what’s possible in the context of the places I work.

Q: Aside from being an author and horticulturist, you’re also an artist and photographer, can you tell us how your horticultural background influences your art?

A: I really have come to terms with the concept of a single practice which has multiple outlets of expression, which in my life so far has included books, photography, video, visual art and, of course, plantings. Unsurprisingly, the balance of my visual art works are botanically inspired. Photographically, I have a wide body of work that explores landscapes through various digital manipulation techniques. I like to challenge people to see more than what they might discern at first glance. These kinds of techniques also infuse my thinking about place and can inspire plantings or features in landscapes. I think I bring an empathetic view to the subjects that comes from having such a deep scientific understanding and curiosity about them. I often tell people I have an artist’s heart and a scientist’s head.

Q: What does home gardening mean to you? What value does it bring?

A: Our home gardens aren’t separate from the world around us. The boundaries between our garden and the greater ecosystem only exist in our minds. The garden fence, so to speak, is remarkably porous. You first have to 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. 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). The value of a resilient, ecologically vibrant home garden speaks volumes to living well in our place.

Q: How does your experience working in public gardens shape your teaching style in your new educational program, New Naturalism Academy: Designing and Planting

A: The gem of this program grew from a similar educational experience I designed and curated during my tenure at Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden going back to 2015. Daily engagement with the public always helped to calibrate how I delivered information. I’ve always believed you must meet people where they’re at and encourage them to come along with you on a journey. I’m always on a mission to change the way people think about something. This practice of persuasive communication has deep roots in my life in public and retail settings.

Q: If you could pick one thing that you hope our 2023 Spencer Lecture attendees will take away from your presentation, what would it be?

A: Lately, I have been asking audiences to consider how their gardens can be more abundant. This starts with more plants, more plant diversity and a denser conception of the garden. We should want a world with greater abundance because it’s the mothering force of ecology.