Bearded Iris: The Grand Lady of the Perennial Garden

Bearded irises come dressed in beautiful ball gowns in a rainbow of colors.

 

Planting perennials that keep on giving in more ways than one has long been my approach to gardening. With minimal care and investment, you reap great rewards in terms of beauty and a bounty of new plants to share every few years.

Among the daylilies, hostas, Moonbean coreopsis, peonies, roses and the like reside what I call the Grand Lady of the Garden, the bearded iris.

My mother, the furthest thing from a gardener herself, had a clump of very resilient yellow iris growing in front of the bay windows of our childhood home, and I was always drawn to them. So when I started building my own gardens, I knew they would be included.

A long way from yellow

When I set out to find those yellow ones my mother grew, I discovered a whole new world I had no idea existed. There were irises in pink, purple, white, red, soft blue, and every color combination of those – with fabulous names like Beverly Sills, Pink Cherub, Sweet Musette and Lady Friend – in varying heights with their typical stunning spear-like foliage.

The one word I could come up with while poring through the choices was “elegant.” The ruffles of the petals to this day remind me of a Grand Lady dancing in her ball gown — soft, pretty, feminine. To think that such a beautiful flower emerges from a blob of a brown rhizome is still amazing to me, but emerge it does with a minimum of care.

It’s quirky, but not complicated

Planting these glorious beauties is pretty straight-forward and should be done in mid- to late summer to allow root systems to develop before cold weather sets in. Irises like full sun and well-drained, slightly acidic soil. The one thing you do have to be careful of is not to plant them too deep. Leave a small mound on the top of the rhizome exposed; if you don’t, they may not flower.

They also don’t like nitrogen-rich fertilizer or mulch, both of which can cause the rhizome to rot. Use a light dusting of bone meal or superphosphate in early spring and then a month or so after the blooming, or use a generic 6-10-10 fertilizer mix.

If they do develop rot (recognized by bases that have become loose or soft and are sporting little holes) the good news is all you have to do is cut the bad spots away with a sharp knife.

Irises may also stop flowering well if they become too congested. The plants should be thinned every few years by digging up the clumps, cutting rhizomes apart, removing any soft spots or holes, and leaving one healthy set of leaves and firm, white roots. Replant the new rhizomes and share any extras with gardening friends..

Generally speaking, iris beds should be kept weed free to keep them looking best in their ball gowns, and flower stems should be cut back to ground level after blooming. The leaves should be left alone if they look green and healthy, but anything that looks diseased or brown should be removed and destroyed. (Don’t put them in the compost pile!).

If Mom could do it …

If this sounds intimidating to you, trust me when I say that iris are one of the easiest care perennials out there. Believe it or not, a then inexperienced gardener did all of the above some 35 years ago with those yellow irises in front of the family home. Now, the descendants of that original plant still thrive in my garden today.

If my mother could grow them, and I can grow them, so can you! Happy gardening!

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