‘Iris’ was the Greek goddess of the rainbow and the flower named for her comes in a rainbow of flower colors! Iris is one of the oldest garden flowers, the hardiest and often the only remnant of any long abandoned home garden. Here in the foothills, Iris can survive with very little water and are deer and gopher resistant, which makes them popular with foothill gardeners, as well as with vacation home owners.
Although the most familiar type of Iris is the Bearded Iris, the Iris family includes more than 200 species including some native to our mountains like Douglas Iris. Irises are separated into two major groups - rhizomes and bulbs. The common bearded Iris, beardless Siberian and Japanese Irises come from rhizomes, the fat fleshy roots that provide ‘food storage’ for the plant. Dutch Iris are grown from small bulbs. ‘Reblooming Iris,’ also called remontants, are Iris that produce two or more flushes of bloom each year.
Nancy and Lyle Swanson of Oakhurst fell in love with Iris for their beauty and the rainbow of colors available. They also love animals, and these two loves led them to start an annual Iris event benefiting the Eastern Madera County SPCA’s plans to complete an animal shelter for our mountain community. Their sale, using Iris divisions from their garden, has been going on for 20 years and Nancy reports over that time period, they must have sold $15-20,000 worth of iris plants to people in our mountain area and every penny goes to the EMC SPCA.
Each year in late summer, Lyle and Nancy dig 400-500 iris rhizomes and pot them up for a sale held at their home every April. Nancy says, “In late summer it’s hot and I can only work one hour a day, so Lyle ends up doing a lot of the digging. For years, we’ve potted them all up using pots donated by Western Sierra Nursery.”
“For each clump, we replant three, which gives us six or seven tubers to pot up and sell. We like to have them blooming to show off their colors,” she adds.
If your Irises are not blooming as well as in other years, they may need to be divided. The best time to divide and transplant Rhizomatous Iris is late July through September, so the new plants will have plenty of time to become established again before winter sets in.
Iris loves the heat and drier weather in late summer will reduce the incidence of bacterial soft rot. Most bearded Iris should be divided every three to five years, which is what the Swansons do.
When dividing, first soak hard soil around a crowded Iris clump with a hose or sprinkler for a few minutes. Cut back the leaves to about one-third of their height. Lift the entire clump with a spade or digging fork. Use a sharp knife or just crack the rhizomes apart to separate them. Discard the old shriveled rhizomes.
Each new transplant, consisting of one fan of leaves and one healthy rhizome, can now be replanted in a new area. Sunny, gentle slopes are perfect for replanting Iris divisions. Soak the soil and dig holes about five inches deep. Build a small mound in the middle of each hole and plant the rhizome firmly on top of the mound and let the rootlets drape around the mound.
One good design is planting Iris 12-18 inches apart in groups of three to four with the fan of leaves at the outside of a circle and the roots facing in. The Iris will grow outward. Cover the roots with soil and leave the rhizome slightly exposed like the top of a submarine. Don’t plant the rhizome too deep or it may collect too much moisture.
Look for Iris bulbs at the nurseries this month or divide yours for years of colorful blooms in the spring so, if your patch is producing very few flowers, it’s time to divide!
For more garden ideas, see SierraFoothillGarden.com and for questions email Sue Langley at firstname.lastname@example.org.