Young Alum of the Month – August 2015
The warm summer sun dries the dew on leaves and flower petals of the thousands of plants growing in the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. This beautiful jungle of plant life and sea of outdoor color is managed by Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences young alum, Kelly Norris. “I have always been a plant geek and I get to come to work daily with plants and very talented people who feel the same way. The garden is my Eden; it can be yours, and it can be mine at the same time. Many different people are able to connect with this site in a different way. That is why I love my job,” explains Norris.
Norris is the Director of Horticulture at the garden where he is instrumental in site development and garden construction, serves as editor of the membership magazine and leads and manages five employees.
Norris graduated in 2011 with a master’s degree in horticulture and has been working for the Botanical Gardens since November of 2012. Norris’ daily tasks vary and that is one of many reasons he loves his job. The downtown attraction was once run-down and unstable. He has worked to build the non-profit facility into a community attraction for the public to enjoy. Since assuming operatorship, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden has seen a slow and steady rise to its present success. That success has not come without challenges.
“The pace of the growth is both an opportunity and a challenge,” says Norris. “I just want to make sure to put the best step forward in a positive direction.”
The Botanical Gardens originally started with five employees and is currently employing 23. The budget is increasing and so are details and depth of upcoming projects.
Norris’ love for plants began when he was four years old when he began gardening with his maternal grandmother. When he was 15 he began his own business with help from his business partners, also known as “Mom and Dad.” Their business, Rainbow Iris Farms, is currently changing their focus from retail to hybridization and breeding. This experience as an entrepreneur taught Norris successful business and helped fan the flame for his passion in horticulture.
As Norris reflected on his reasoning for choosing Iowa State to study horticulture, he shared he had a fifth grade teacher, an alumni of Iowa State, who encouraged him to attend.
“I always knew in fifth grade that I was coming to Iowa State and I never questioned it. ISU all the way! From that point on I made it my passion and mission to plant the world a more beautiful place,” he says.
Norris was actively involved while a student at Iowa State. He was president of the Horticulture Club and co-chaired the plant sale during VEISHEA. He was in the men’s choir, the Iowa Statesmen, during both of his undergraduate and graduate years.
“Learning in the classroom is only one aspect of your education. The people you meet and the conversations after class are irreplaceable experiences you cannot gain solely from the classroom. The interactions with professors help you to go beyond traditional education,” he says.
Norris admired Cindy Haynes (his undergraduate adviser), William Graves (his master’s adviser) and James Rodde (Director of Iowa Statesmen) for making his adventure personable and successful as they offered countless hours of guidance both inside and outside of the classroom.
Besides being the horticulture director at the Botanical Gardens in Des Moines, Norris is an author, an active lecturer presenting around 36 lectures per year and an entrepreneur.
He has written Plants with Style: A Plantsman’s Choices for a Vibrant 21st Century Garden, A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts, The Iowa Gardener’s Travel Guide, and Dig This: The Bookazine for People Who Love Dirt.
As students return to campus for another school year, he offers wise advice for any student or alum.
“It is important to learn to understand the world and to be open to possibilities. Try to find inspiration in everything. If you like to make plans, know that plans are always changing. Dwight D. Eisenhower said ‘I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.’ I am a planner and my position is not what I envisioned for myself but I couldn’t be happier. If we aren’t open to life’s opportunities, you miss out on life’s pleasures themselves.”