Gardens by Kelly Productions


Dear all,

This weekend I inadvertently activated a post that wasn’t supposed to be public (it was just an experiment to host images for a project I was doing on Pinterest).  I sent an email out to the subscriber list, but have since realized that many of you didn’t receive that since you subscribe via feeds.  I apologize for these gaffes.  For those who didn’t receive it, here’s the message I sent to the email subscribers explaining the situation this weekend:

Dear devoted followers,

My sincere apologies for the confusing email that you received this morning asking for a password to an otherwise non-existent blog post.  I was doing some tinkering with some settings and inadvertently triggered a post that went out to the subscriber list.

Rest assured, I’m not restricting access to anything on this site.  Browse, read, and enjoy!

Happy gardening,



Got bark?

Recently, I took an afternoon stroll around the Iowa State University campus with camera in hand in search of the beauty of bark.  As I see it, bark is like the wallpaper of the landscape, always there even when the room is bare.  A well-known contemporary horticulturist once remarked in a press release that the beauty of bark was lost on the general public.  On the contrary, I think horticulture’s ability to convey the beauty of bark is lost on the general public, because we presently don’t convey much of anything about it!  We otherwise malign and ignore bark.  Boo!

Throughout the next 10 months while I work on my next book for Timber Press, I’m planning to leak some of the ideas I espouse in the manuscript–the essence of a kickass pursuit of plants.  Today, it’s all about bark and summed up easily enough in the swatch I made below.  Can you name all eight of these woody plants?  How many do you grow?


Cleaning House

Today, while cleaning my office (which seems like a constant, never-ending job), I came across two partial boxes of my first book, The Iowa Gardener’s Travel Guide, which many of you remember being promoted first on this site when it released in December 2008.  In an effort to make a little more space in my closet and to get these copies in the hands of folks who can put them to use (even if some of the entries are out-of-date), I’m offering them to you for 50% off cover price–$10.00 (sales tax included for Iowa residents).  Add $5.00 for shipping, and they’re yours.

So how do you buy a copy?  Email me with the following information: 

1. How many copies you’d like

2. If you’d like them autographed

3. Your shipping address

I’ll reply and provide you with the email address to use via PayPal.  If you’d prefer to pay by check, that works too.

If you’re interested in buying more than five copies (they do make great gifts), please email me for details.  Hurry–nab ‘em up!




















Onwards and upwards…

An overcast sky and a duet album by Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny has me in a reflective mood today.  I think it’s prudent to pause at the close of a year, on the doorstep of another, and take stock of the road traveled and the journey ahead.  I’m not the kind of person that makes resolutions; I prefer not to think of January 1 as some new slate or canvas on which to start afresh.  It’s merely another opportunity, albeit with some celebration to mark the passage of time towards your goals and ambitions in life–a rest stop complete with fellowship, libations, and expressions of love and friendship.

2011 has been a phenomenal year in my life, even if the adventure at times frayed my nerves, tried my patience, and sullied my temperament.  Professionally, I finished my second book and graduated with my M.S. in horticulture from Iowa State University.  I gave 18 invited lectures this year from California to Virginia (love me some frequent flyer miles).  I flirted with three different job opportunities, though ultimately none of them panned out, and at that probably for the better.  The experience of interviewing and “going through that process” as they say in the world of job hunting was more than worth it.

Personally, I grew a lot into the person I’ve always wanted to be.  I met some phenomenal people this year that have forever changed my life.  As my professional life slowed down a little bit this fall, I made an effort to spend more time with my  inner circle of friends, reach out to colleagues I don’t talk to as much as I should, and invested time and energy in getting to know and love someone really fantastic.

On the flip side of all of this personal growth was my garden, largely left to itself after June 1 when my summer spun away in a skein of line graphs, thesis chapters, and book photography.  I missed it, a lot.  I’ve never spent so much time away from it in my life, and frankly, it bothered me.  My garden is a large part of my identity–my passion coming alive in the forms of living things.  I’ve always said that gardens are expressions of their creators, and mine this year certainly mirrored me–tousled, full, and still resilient.  Though I was away from it often, it carried on, and was there to greet me when I needed to separate myself from the rest of the world.  There’s nothing more therapeutic than an ambling walk through the garden with little stops to pull weeds, snap pictures, deadhead, and prune.

I guess we write the stories about ourselves that we want to write, though I’m probably a little hyper-objective for my own good some days.  But what 2011 reminded me of is that no matter how well I may architect a vision of myself or my work, the magic of serendipity always keeps any of my best laid plans unfinished.  That I embrace now.

So what’s ahead?  I’ve got another book to write, as you’ve probably read.  I’ve got nine lectures booked already, but expect to add several more.  The iris book (link above) comes out in early May, and you’ll hear much, much more about that in the months ahead.  I’m so excited to share it with you!  I’m plotting my next career move and considering whether I want to pursue my long-held ambition of a PhD or jump ahead to another business plan that’s formulated in the last six month.  In one sense, 2012 is a canvas with so many possibilities, to paraphrase Sondheim.

So it’s onwards and upwards from here.  Blaze on wayfarers into the bright beyond.



The Plantsman’s Advent Calendar Day 25: THE BIG ANNOUNCEMENT!

Well, the announcement is here.  It’s in a festive mood with great pleasure that I finally share some exciting news with you–I’m writing another book for Timber Press!  It’s tentatively called Dig This–A Style Guide to Kickass Gardening.  

Freshly approved, this next project will embody the very essence of what this Plantsman’s Advent Calendar–chic plants for hip gardeners, the ethos of much of my creative work for the last several years.  From the introduction in progress:

Kickass gardening isn’t only a way to garden—it’s a mindset and an attitude, and age has nothing to do with it.  Sass, irreverence, candor, audacity, and independence are marks of a kickass gardener, some ever young-at-heart soul who just wants to make a little paradise where it doesn’t otherwise exist.  Kickass gardening is about digging in the groove, finding the niche where you can unplug, connect with the earth, beautify some space, and be you.  There are no rules, just good taste and style.

The book itself though isn’t just another twist on a philosophy for horticulture, no matter how pragmatic.  It’s a book for people who love plants and who want to live in plant-filled spaces.  Plants, after all, are the very essence of taste and style in the garden.  The book will craft an ethos around what it means to be a ”gardenista”—remember, if you don’t have to be a fashion designer to dress well, then you don’t have to be a professional horticulturist to create a great garden.  I look forward to sassing up the world of cool, kickass, waiting-to-be-rockstar plants with this next project.

And now a plant.  I mean what kind of advent calendar would this be without a chocolate treat on Christmas morn?  In an homage to the colors of my alma mater, I’m sharing with you one of my favorite species tulips Tulipa acuminata, the flame tulip of heirloom renown.  Native to Turkey, these twisted-petalled flowers scream to be the topic of conversation in mid-May and always look photogenic.  Planted in drifts, there’s nothing quite so irresistible.  Fortunately, too, this is available from several bulb suppliers including two favorite nurseries below.  Plant abundantly and light up your spring life.

In closing, Merry Christmas to those celebrating this hallmark occasion of love and joy across the world.  I’ll be back on New Year’s Eve to reflect a little and to look ahead.  Until then, have a blessed holiday season.


Brent & Becky’s Bulbs

Odyssey Bulbs

Tulipa acuminata, ©2011, Kelly D. Norris

Tulipa acuminata, ©2011, Kelly D. Norris


The Plantsman’s Advent Calendar Day 24: Sanguinaria canadensis ‘Multiplex’

A plant like this is the mark of fine taste.  My first encounter with bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was in the 10 acres of oak savanna woodlands on my family farm.  Each spring like a ritual, I would sojourn into the woods, scouring the ground floor for crowds of my favorite ephemerals–Claytonia, Erythronium, Cardamine, and Sanguinaria.  Named for the morphine-like substance exuded from their rhizomes, bloodroot makes an easy groundcover in the woodland garden, slowly spreading over the years to form a carpet of pristine, virginal flowers that harbinger spring.

The double form called ‘Multiplex’ trumps any of the rest.  A loosely defined cultivar (no doubt any double mutation discovered over time has donned this name), it’s finally starting to become more available, descending from its lofty three figure price tags into an affordable range.  Collectors have long coveted their clumps of ‘Multiplex’, hoarding them behind tall trees in the back of shady areas–floral moonshine–in fears of them being stolen (which has happened; smart crooks).  Though it clumps at a moderate pace, it’s hardly so slow as to warrant obscurity.

But it’s that coveting, that hoarding that has resulted in its rarity.  Hailed in the U.K. by the Royal Horticultural Society as one of the top plant introductions of the last 200 years, it’s a dashing, double-petalled example of our native North American flora and the impact such gems have had on international horticulture.  It’s a shame then that so few domestic gardens have them, at least in comparison to that international popularity.  No need to borrow or steal (begging however is condoned), these fine nurseries listed below offer them at a reasonable price.


Avant Gardens

Plant Delights Nursery

Sanguinaria canadensis 'Multiplex'  ©2011, Kelly D. Norris

Sanguinaria canadensis 'Multiplex' ©2011, Kelly D. Norris





The Plantsman’s Advent Calendar Day 23: Crinum ‘Menehune’ (Purple Dream™)

I’ve decided to wrap up the last three days of this Plantsman’s Advent Calendar with three distinctive and vastly different plants.  Today’s plant is also the first and only tropical species on the list.  Let me explain.

Many gardening friends have frequently heard me espouse my barely tepid interest in tropical plants.  ”If it’s not hardy, throw it back,” I’ve often retorted, suggesting that the pool of plants I cultivate need not include those that can’t withstand a brutal Iowa winter.  I’ve never had much of a knack for tropicals as houseplants either, much preferring to grow plants in the free outdoors than the ever-too-dry containers of my bedroom and living room.  While I like the idea of living among my plants, I’d just assume live in the garden instead.

But ever in search of a plant that makes my head turn, I’m smitten with Crinum ‘Menehune’ (marketed under the name Purple Dream™) for its sultry, seductive, and purple foliage set against sprays of pink flowers.  Crinums are pretty awesome to begin with, especially if you live in the south (shout out to my buddy Jenks Farmer, the Crinum dude).  Beyond the tenderness of Zone 8 and above, this plant has great potential to light up a container garden with two dashes of zing like you couldn’t believe.  While I don’t take charge of making container gardens at our nursery, I’ve always had opinions about how I’d like to see them done (hint, hint mom).  Random trivia–the name Menehune comes from an elusive, forest-dwelling, dark-skinned race of Hawaiian island natives.

This Sean Callahan hybrid of C. oliganthum x C. procerum ‘Splendens’ may not make a huge play in the American market, given its limited hardiness, but it’s well worth the effort to find one.  Despite my advocacy of hardy garden plants for temperate gardens, I think there is a real place for tropicals in garden design, a way to spice things up, change up the texture, and artistically transport the viewer to another environment.  Whether that happens in the open garden near a bog or in a large container to accommodate its 20″ x 20″ dimensions, I’m open to the possibilities.


Hines Nurseries (wholesale)

Pond Megastore

Crinum 'Menehune' Purple Dream™, photo courtesy of Garden Media Group

Crinum 'Menehune' Purple Dream™, photo courtesy of Garden Media Group


The Plantsman’s Advent Calendar Day 22: Oenothera macrocarpa ssp. fremontii

Happy Winter Solstice!  The day of reckoning, the shortest of them all thankfully, is upon us.  Let the march (trudge) towards spring begin…

On this the first day of winter, I think it’s appropriate to celebrate with something silvery.  Some of you in the Mountain West and northern plains today get to enjoy another less comely version of silvery white and to you all I offer my condolences.

Onto silver.  Oenothera macrocarpa is a fascinating species for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s just a great garden plant.  I’ve grown forms of it since I was a kid, back when I just thought it was pretty and got excited at its rampant vigor.  Second, the variation across its range is marked and pronounced.  Fremont’s Evening Primrose (ssp. fremontii) grows in chalky, rocky soils (read: hell) in northern Kansas and south central Nebraska.  At one point it was considered a separate species, owing to its smaller, more abundant flowers and slight differences in the shape of its seedpod when compared to other provenances.  But bringing it back into the fold of O. macrocarpa makes plenty of sense taxonomically and helps to underscore the importance of collecting and evaluating germplasm of broadly distributed species from across their geographic distributions.  Enough with the provenance soapbox…

In the garden, O. macrocarpa ssp. fremontii rues a silver day, flirting with my wandering eyes from its emergence in May to its disappearance in late fall.  The plants I grow don’t have cultivar names, but rather owe their origins to wild-collected seed.  In other words, variation abounds, and I love it.    These silver salvers serve up yellow flowers, sunny and tastefully lemony, on the eve of high summer; an eloquent way of saying that these flowers show up when it’s blisteringly hot out.  Though I don’t have any specimens worth of higher selection, I enjoy the undercurrent of pewter that moves through my rock garden each time the wind rustles through their foliage (and thankfully for once not due to powdery mildew).  Can you tell I’m just a little struck with puppy love here?

But there are several nice forms and selections of this showy Great Plains native available, carry image-conjuring names like ‘Shimmer’, ‘Silver Wings’, and ‘Comanche Campfire’.  I can attest to the fact that all of them deserve a place in American gardens.  Of these, ‘Shimmer’ takes top honors for its dazzling foliar presentation, floriferousness, and high ‘hot or not’ score (plant-style).


High Country Gardens

Jelitto Seeds

Plant Delights Nursery

Oenothera macrocarpa ssp. fremontii, ©2011, Kelly D. Norris

Oenothera macrocarpa ssp. fremontii, ©2011, Kelly D. Norris


The Plantsman’s Advent Calendar Day 21: Polygonatum humile

Don’t mistake for a minute that all plants in the garden have to be loud-mouthed and sassy.  Hip gardeners know that classy, chic plants fit into comely garden spaces whether recliner- or votive-candle-sized.  Sometimes it’s the little details (channel your inner Bob Ross and think “happy little trees”) that make or break the stylistic essence of a garden.  Today I’m featuring one of those little details in my shade garden–Polygonatum humile.

Ever running around the garden floor in search of a neighbor to cuddle next to, this dwarf Solomon’s seal never grows more than six or eight inches (at least the majority of forms in commerce).  Little fluted stems with white, teardrop-shaped flowers pop up early in April here in Iowa and join an ephemeral crowd in full swing–violets, hepaticas, and epimediums to name a few.  Fortunately, this plant is a little more available than others I’ve featured, which means you should all run out and buy 10 or so if you don’t grow it already.

And what do I need to say culturally about a plant that’s so easy to grow?  Drop the roots into some decent humus, cool in the shade, and you’re on your way to enjoying these little votives of the woodland garden.


Joy Creek Nursery

Lazy S’S Farm Nursery

Polygonatum humile, ©2011, Kelly D. Norris

Polygonatum humile, ©2011, Kelly D. Norris


The Plantsman’s Advent Calendar Day 20: Michauxia campanuloides

So continuing with yesterday’s themes of ‘biennial’ and ‘absent from my garden,’ I thought I’d give a shout out to a really awesome plant that just surfaced on my radar a few seasons ago.

Named for French royal botanist André Michaux, Michauxia campanuloides is a member of Campanulaceae, the bellflower family.  Now, I’m not hung up on every generic bellflower just because it has dangling, bell-shaped flowers (I gots Irids with tepals, yo).  But I do get hung up on Michauxia, not only because it dangles but because it’s anything but generic.  As it came into my view during a visit to Dancing Oaks Nursery last summer, I thought I’d come across a flowering ghost.  Eerily topping out at 5′ tall, these inflorescences drip pendent white flowers that look more wraith-like than floral.  I’d love to know why this particular plant was named in honor of Michaux, having a hunch it was credited with his name after one of his pre-American expeditions through the Middle East to Persia.  He was a character and one of the most significant botanists of his day.  Incidentally, his name is found as an epithet of several plants including Quercus michauxii, Lilum michauxii, and Carex michauxiana.

But back to the plant.  How is something so creepy cool, so otherwise absent from modern gardens?  This native of Lebanon and Israel is hardy to Zone 5 (and ironically, like Anthriscus yesterday is often underrated in terms of hardiness), thrives in clay and rocky soils, loves full sun, freaks people out, and reseeds a little when it’s all over with.  How can we go wrong?  It’ll soon have a home in my garden.  Yours?

{Can I just give a shout-out to the fine ladies at Annie’s Annuals who seriously keep the world going round with cool plants?  I don’t know how many times this month they’ve been credited as a source, but let’s all pick up the reigns here a little.  Though there’s nothing wrong with supporting  a great nursery like Annie’s, we really can’t expect them to keep the rest of us in supply of this stuff forever.  Let’s get some of these gems spread around!}

Sources (updated 12/20):

Annie’s Annuals

Arrowhead Alpines

Michauxia campanuloides, ©2011, Kelly D. Norris

Michauxia campanuloides, ©2011, Kelly D. Norris