The New Generation

Meet six young horticulturists who are helping to shape how America gardens.

By Ken Druse


Next Generation Horticuluralist: Kelly NorrisThe Collector: Kelly Norris

When Kelly Norris was 15, he talked his parents into buying an iris nursery in Texas. That entailed labeling and digging up 40,000 iris rhizomes, bagging and loading them into a tractor-trailer, driving the plants to Iowa, and replanting them on a 7-acre site they called Rainbow Iris Farm. By that time, the young collector already had more than 300 iris varieties.

People tend to say yes to Norris due to his confidence, positive attitude, and infectious enthusiasm. Now age 26, he is a modern-day Andy Hardy, rallying friends and admirers to get excited about his latest enterprise, whether that be giving lectures like “Chic Plants for Modern Gardeners” or having his third book, A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts (Timber Press), published in 2012.

“I want to do it all, as they say. And what I can’t do, I want others to do—movements have leaders,” he says, “but are rarely led by an army of one.”

“I would love to look back on my career, and the careers of my contemporaries, and know that we changed the way society viewed gardeners,” he says, “that they would be hailed as celebrities much like chefs are today, not because we’re all scraping for attention and glory, but because we would be recognized for stewarding the aesthetics and functionality of our environment in positive ways.”

Norris believes that a revolution led by gardeners beats in the distance. “Gardeners—self-identified, nurturing sorts who like living in the company of plants—will have access to an amazing palette of plants with which to make art,” he says. He sees public gardens as cultural hubs in the future in the way that restaurants and art galleries are today.

His prognostications may turn out to be accurate. Norris has been on track for most of his career. He was the youngest person to receive the Iowa State Horticultural Society’s Presidential Citation, Award of Merit, and Honor Award in the organization’s 150-year history. And in November 2012, he was named horticulture manager of the new Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. “It’s a dream come true, to be part of building a botanical garden from scratch.”

Photo: Kathryn Gamble