Kelly Norris came to the family dinner table in 2002 with an unusual proposition. He had seen an ad for an iris nursery up for sale in Texas, and he wanted to buy it. The caveat? He was only 15 years old -- and yet arguably a pro in his own right already. Taught by his grandmother, Norris planted his first garden at 9, published his first horticultural article at 13, and by his mid-teens had amassed an impressive cultivar collection. It didn’t take long to convince the sellers -- and his parents -- he meant business. A few months later, a truckload of 40,000 iris rhizomes arrived at his home in Bedford, Iowa. Rainbow Iris Farm was reborn.
Over the past decade, the nursery has evolved to be exclusively mail-order, focusing on high-performing cultivars. Norris concentrates on breeding, devoting his time to developing “the irises of the future”: hardworking plants that are modest in scale, bloom profusely for weeks, and come in an array of bright colors and distinct patterns.
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He’s also the full-time director of horticulture at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. His mother, who runs operations at Rainbow Iris Farm, checks in via photos and texts, and he heads to the nursery most weekends. Though Norris’s schedule might tire out even the most zealous of gardeners, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m a plantsman,” he says. “I want someone to have an emotional experience with a plant -- to love it and crave it. My goal is to get great irises into the hands of great gardeners.”