Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2013, 10:40 am

Bring the indoors out: Interior design ideas work in the garden, too

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By Laura Anderson Shaw, landerson@qconline.com

Photo: Laura Anderson Shaw
Self-proclaimed "chief plant geek" Kelly Norris delivered the keynote "Dig This! Stylish Gardens for Savvy Gardeners" last Saturday, Feb. 16, at the University of Illinois Extension's and the Rock Island County Master Gardeners' Nursery School at the i wireless Center in Moline. Mr. Norris, who also is the horticulture manager of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, signed his book, "A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts" after the program.
Photo: Submitted
Purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) would offer a great pink splash in the shady part of your garden come midsummer.
Photo: Submitted
The spectacular fruits of the overarching shrub American spikenard (Aralia racemosa) are essential structure for the fall garden, plant guru Kelly Norris says. Mr. Norris is the horticulture manager at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.
Photo: Submitted
Cliff goldenrods are essential to fall gardens.
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The cornleaf iris (Iris bucharica) will add a great splash of early color in your rock garden or along the sidewalk, says Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden horticulture manager, Kelly Norris.
Kelly Norris likens building a garden to building a house.

It's about creating something with structure using trees and vines, then adding plants as decorative elements that offer a "visual reminder" of the season, and creating vignettes of plant groupings that "pull it all together"-- all while being mindful of the environment around it, from the climate and soil to the neighborhood and light, says Mr. Norris, plant guru and horticulture manager of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

Mr. Norris was the keynote speaker last weekend at theUniversity of Illinois Extension's and the Rock Island County Master Gardeners' Nursery School at the i wireless Center in Moline.

His "Dig This! Stylish Gardening for Savvy Gardeners" presentation covered nearly 100 plants, garden designs and plant combinations in about an hour and 15 minutes.

Though the pictures that sprang up on his projector screen were beautiful enough they would have made even Martha Stewart weep, Mr. Norris told the crowd that good garden design essentially comes down to four basic considerations: environment, structure, emblems and vignettes.

For starters, Mr. Norris said gardeners must embrace all their environment offers and then start to assemble the garden that makes the most sense.

Grass is prevalent in the Midwest, so Mr. Norris offered up a number of types of prairie grasses, including sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes), and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), whose stems are "almost kaleidoscopic," with the palate of color on the stems.

Gardens, he said, are all about "finding something that will work" in our environment. For instance, if there are slabs of broken concrete in the yard, use them to your advantage and create a garden between them. Try adding aquarium gravel between the stone for some added texture. Mr. Norris showed a slide where a gardener had done just that, and the crowd -- clearly impressed -- oohed.

After you consider your environment, Mr. Norris said to think about structure. Winter time, actually, is a "magical" time to do this, he said, when everything is dusted with snow and ice and the outlines of the landscape you are working with can easily be seen.

He touched on trees and vines as vertical elements that can "wallpaper" your structure, illustrating with the texture on the bark of the paperback maple (Acer griseum); the beauty of the cascading Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), and the deliciously chartreuse golden hops vine (Humulus lupulus "Aureus").

Ground cover plants such as Baldwin's ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii), which flowers "profusely," and Letterman's ironweed (Vernonia lettermanii), a heat-loving plant, can be thought of as carpeting.

After you've coverd the walls and the floor, you can move on to "emblems," or the "interior design," plants that function as "time pieces of the season," Mr. Norris said.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), is "just amazing," Mr. Norris said, with cotton candy pink seed heads. Purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) also is spectacular. It's a great native plant for tough soils and a little shade, offering "a great pink splash in midsummer," Mr. Norris said.

Mr. Norris also made mention of the Henry Eilers sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), an adorable cone with yellow petals that "doesn't care about anything. It just wants to bloom and make you happy," Mr. Norris said.

He also showed a slide of the Henry Eilers sweet coneflower in the winter, with beautiful snowy ice caked to the stems. He warned not to cut back gardens too early -- there will be time to do it in the spring, he said. If you cut it back in the fall, "(you're) destroying half of the show."

Lastly, Mr. Norris said to choose "vignettes" for the garden to "put it all together," grouping two to five plants together at a time. He illustrated his point with a photograph of beautiful, fairy tale-like Alliums and hostas, paired with leafy Syneilesis aconitifolia, showcasing their "geometry" together.

"Sometimes, it's just one plant that really seals it all together," he said.

But gardeners shouldn't be intimidated. "Trust your eyes," Mr. Norris offered. "Trust what you see."

Mr. Norris said he hopes the crowd would leave inspired by some plants they didn't know they needed in their own gardens.

"You got yourself dressed this morning," Mr. Norris told the crowd, "you can put together your garden."