Salisbury, MD. If you're one of those folks who, when s/he hears the word "iris", only thinks of the pale lavender variety that grew in her mother's garden, the Gardening Grannies would like to broaden your horizons. Often referred to as "flags", there are some 260 species of flowering irises within the family. Named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow, irises sport a wide range of colors which make them quite deserving of their name.
An iris is a plant that can survive an incredible amount of neglect. Granny Griffith likes to tell the story about how, when she was a child on the farm in Ridgely, the kids would sometimes have to "thin out" the crowded rhizomes and toss the extra plants over the barbed wire fence into the pasture. Sometimes the plants didn't quite make it over the fence and would get hung up on the barbs. As kids, they would just leave them there with a "close enough" mentality and move on to the next chore. Granny swears the irises could survive long enough, hanging there on the barb, to come into bloom just from the moisture in the air.
If you are just starting your personal collection of irises, the Gardening Grannies suggest asking friends and neighbors to share a rhizome or two. It's an economical way to get started and, if you ask for them when in bloom, you'll know exactly what colors you are getting. The color choices are incredible and you may want to start with some of the old time lavender ones for a sense of history. You can then increase your collection as your friends and checkbook allow by bringing in snowy whites, huge yellows, deep mahoganies, velvety purples, and two toned varieties.
Garden-grown plants, as opposed to garden center plants, will provide a fairly accurate idea of bloom time. Irises, like many other families of plants, include early, mid- and late-season varieties. If the plants are shipped in, the purchaser has no clue what the water, temperature and other conditions were that may have had an effect on the bloom time When the flowering is over, the Grannies suggest you "neaten up" the bed by cutting off the flower stalks down close to the first leaf. That's all you usually have to do for the rest of the season. Irises will take care of themselves and their sword shaped leaves will lend textural interest to your flower beds all season long.
If there is a marshy area, stream or pond bank in your garden, look for something referred to as "Siberian Iris". They do extremely well in those spongy areas and can spread rapidly making glorious carpets of color ranging from yellow to purple.
An interesting and relatively recent development in iris culture is the re-bloomer. Normally, an iris only blooms one time a season. A re-bloomer will sport flowers twice a year. They accomplish this with the rapid growth of rhizomes into maturity and, by late summer, the new rhizomes are ready to bloom. More plants. More blooms. How can you go wrong with that?
The only critical aspect of ornamental iris culture would be to be sure that the top half of the rhizome is exposed to the sunlight. Irises almost can't be planted too shallowly. If rot develops, it is most likely because the drainage is poor, the rhizomes are planted too deeply or are covered with mulch. No matter what the soil type or moisture availability, there is an iris that is going to thrive there! The key to successful gardening is simply the right plant in the right place.
The Gardening Grannies are a group of avid and Master Gardeners who live, love and garden on the Delmarva Peninsula. They can be reached at email@example.com.