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annual gardening, annual garden design

IRIS EXPLOSION



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Elisabeth Ginsburg
You need this in your perennial border.

Two years ago a friend divided her mother’s iris bed and gave me a big box of bearded iris (Iris germanica) rhizomes. They were strapping healthy things, ready to burst out of the box and start sprouting. The only aggravating wrinkle was that they were not sorted by color. But I had always wanted an iris walk, so I decided to worry about color later. That fall I spent several sessions installing the rhizomes at regular intervals around a keyhole-shaped brick walkway. As I planted, that nagging little voice that all gardeners have kept reminding me that the ideal planting time for iris is between July and September.

My iris succeeded marvelously despite the less-than-optimum planting time, and each rhizome dutifully put forth at least one fan of leaves the following spring. I had visions of brilliant golden bi-colors, sky blue standards and even shell pink bearded falls. Unfortunately the first six rhizomes to sport blossoms all had flowers that were an interesting shade of brownish butterscotchy-peach. Nice, possibly, for an accent color, but not something I would have chosen for an entire bed.

Still, beggars can’t be choosers, so I waited for the rest of the iris to bloom. When they did, I was relieved to see several with velvety purple petals, so deep that they were almost black. There were also a few rusty dark red blooms—another accent color. There was also one rhizome that had the courage to put forth a yellow flower. Hallelujah!

This year the iris are back with a vengeance. The butterscotchy-peach ones regard even a drop of rain or a grunt from the gardener as a sign of encouragement. Needless to say they are now huge and there are more of them than of any other color. The purple ones are quite magnificent, and the rusty ones are growing on me as they flourish in the garden. The good news is that the yellow iris appears quite robust, though there is only one mature plant.

I should be more grateful. After all, none of my tall bearded iris have been afflicted by any of those horrible iris diseases such as bacterial soft rot, crown rot fungus, leaf spots, mosaic or the dreaded iris borer. What’s more, none of them rebloom. I would be upset about that except for the fact that I have so many butterscotchy-peach colored iris.

My iris are so big and healthy that this year I am going to have to divide them. The first step in this process is to go out this weekend and tag each plant before the flowers fade so I remember what color it is. Later on, after the spring planting, purchasing, mulching and weeding extravaganza is over, I will set about the serious business of dividing and rearranging my stock. I will definitely separate the rusty red iris from the butterscotch. They do not work well together. I will put some of the deep purple ones around my yellow iris for a nice contrast, and possibly flank that display with some divisions of a sky-blue cultivar that the previous owner left me. The reds may require outside help in the form of a white iris or two that I will order from one of the catalogs. Some of the butterscotchy-peach iris will be transferred to underpopulated spots in my front yard. Perhaps they won’t be so obvious in a larger space.

If the yellow iris is big enough to divide, I will also group some butterscotchy-peach bloomers around it. Any remaining butterscotch iris, plus a few each of the other colors will go back to the friend who started me on this iris madness. She has since bought a new house and left her mother’s iris bed behind. My friend may actually be engulfed by nostalgia when she catches sight of the rhizomes for the butterscotchy-peach iris. It gives me such joy to participate in that kind of humanitarian effort.

I am fully aware that there are many people elsewhere in the world who would love to have my iris problem. Some have no sunny space, others spend every day fighting off voracious iris borers. I feel for them, but I just can’t quite relate to them.

For those not blessed with friends who are about to divide an overgrown iris bed, there is only one thing to do. Contact Cooley’s Gardens, 11553 Silverton Road NE., P.O. Box 126NT, Silverton, Oregon 97381, (503) 873-5463. Catalogs are $5.00, and can be requested by calling (800) 225-5391. Cooley’s also has a wonderful website with great planting and care instructions at www.cooleyiris@aol.com.

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