Kelly Norris wins top honors at Philly Flower Show

Wildflowers bloomed amid concrete blocks in “A Beautiful Disturbance” last week in Philadelphia. (Photo: Rob Cardillo)

By Michael Morain

Most people think of landscapes as permanent, or at least long term. But whenever the local garden guru and author Kelly Norris spots an empty lot around town — east of City Hall, for example — he wonders what could thrive there even for just a season or two until a new building goes up. What kind of garden could flourish instead of a plain old placeholder patch of grass?

He explored that idea in a big way last week at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the country’s oldest and largest, which was founded 195 years ago and now draws crowds of 250,000 every spring.

Norris won a heap of awards, including the Governor’s Trophy, for a project he called “A Beautiful Disturbance.” To create it, he and his team filled 1,440 square feet of the Pennsylvania Convention Center with wildflowers, grasses and vines, all running beautifully rampant over concrete blocks, chain-link fences and other leftover chunks of what looked like an abandoned lot. They even scattered the space with dried-up stalks and seed pods to suggest the passage of time.

“I spent more money than I’ll ever admit to FedEx sticks across the country,” he said.

Most of the living plants came from a greenhouse and nursery north of the city, in Bucks County. For months ahead of time, Norris and the greenhouse staff pored over spreadsheets and timelines to determine which flowers they could coax into bloom just in time for the show.

Some of them, like Queen Anne’s Lace and Black-Eyed Susans, usually pop up in ditches or untended fields. One plant by itself might look like a weed. Fifty plants look intentional.

“Because really, what’s a weed?” Norris said. “When you think about those species, the lens we see them through often has little to do with the plant itself. There’s all this psychology and sociocultural stuff about what we value and how we control it.”

Ultimately, Norris created “A Beautiful Disturbance” to disrupt people’s ideas about city ecosystems. In most urban areas, in the “concrete jungles” where plants are scarce, he encourages property owners, developers and city planners to consider how vegetation can promote a sense of growth and renewal. Like public art, gardens can foster a sense of community even, or especially, when they’re designed to be ephemeral.

They sprout. They bloom. They disappear.

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