Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Elegant Iris

Have you any  iris growing in your garden?  The iris family is very large -- Japanese, Siberian, Pacific Coast -- but I’m thinking of the bearded iris that stand tall and stately in the May garden, providing a rainbow of colors as they bloom.  The three outer sepals of their flowers are called “falls” and have a fuzzy center known as a “beard.” 

July is the best time to plant or divide iris rhizomes, those knobby looking things from which the roots dangle. They’re easy to plant if you know how, but let’s  review the proper method as it’s a big unusual.     

The first step is to cut across the fan of leaves with a scissors so it’s only 3 or 4 inches high.  Then dig a hole and make a sort of hobby horse of soil for the each rhizome to sit on. Spread its roots down on either side and cover them firmly with soil   The rhizome itself is left barely covered.  It will extend itself each year, so if you’re planting a group it’s important to position them in a circle with the fans facing out.  That way they won’t get crowded for hopefully three or four years. 

Sad to say, if the rhizomes get really crowded they can cause a nasty bacterial disease called root rot, especially in a wet summer.  To avoid this problem, you should replant them when they get crowded by digging them up, breaking off the elongated rhizomes and planting them again, following the same directions. 

When I first started my perennial border my sister-in-law gave me about two dozen iris rhizomes.  I didn’t have a clue how to plant these strange knobby rhizomes, but I found easy directions in a good garden book. Molly had gushed over their brilliant colors, but had neglected to label them, so although they produced that rainbow of colors, it was spotty --  a blue one here, a deep umber there, a yellow one right next to a clump of lemon lilies. 

I think irises are far more effective when each clump contains a single color, so a few years later I decided to rearrange them. While they were in bloom  that spring I tied  colored yarn on each one to match its blossom.  Then in July I carefully dug them up, cut their fans back and set them into piles according to their colored yarns. 

By then it was almost noon, so I took a break, had some lunch and came back to replant the piles.  Much to my horror, Rosta, probably the naughtiest dog we ever owned, had been playing catch with the piles.  The lawn had rhizomes here, there and everywhere.  Not a single pile was left untouched.

I locked Rosta in the barn and faced making new piles.  Fortunately a lot of the yarn tags were still attached, and I was able to plant most of them correctly.  Rosta is long gone, but every time I look at one of my large clumps of iris, all sporting a single color, I smile as I picture what fun she had with those rhizomes. 

I wish I’d taken a photo so you could see this wooly brown Irish water spaniel tossing rhizomes into the sky, but getting the camera was far from my thoughts, so the picture above was taken one snowy winter day.  If you have a naughty dog, I suggest you lock her away when you replant iris rhizomes. 

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