Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Rennovating a Summer/Fall Iris Garden!

by Bob Pries

Yes, I did say Summer/Fall! While working on the Iris Encyclopedia I see a great deficit and relatively undeveloped area in the Gardens Web. I have been trying to find great images showing beautiful garden scenes and vignettes featuring irises. Perhaps the most difficult images to find are those of Summer or Fall iris gardens. But even Spring lacks numbers of images. If anyone still doesn’t know two groups of irises bloom in Summer or Fall: Iris dichotoma hybrids (Iris x norrissii) and reblooming bearded irises. I would love to be able to capture these irises in garden settings with other Summer flowers. So, when disaster struck my garden over the last couple of years, I saw an opportunity to create a new garden that could create these little pictures.

One would think there would be lots of pictures of Spring garden settings. Not! I found only one from my garden, which I offer as an example. Iris pallida ‘Argentea’ growing with pink dianthus in my former rock garden shows what I mean. The wiki would welcome many of these garden scenes. If you have images of “Iris Garden Scenes” you can share them by attaching them to this page: https://wiki.irises.org/Gdn/PhotoGalleryVariousIrisGardenScenes. Even though we judge irises for their merit as “Garden” plants, we seldom see images of garden scenes. I do not wish to disparage the Iris collector’s gardens with specimens growing in rows like corn. After all I am a collector myself! Growing irises in rows is easiest way to maintain a large collection. However, I suggest there are more gardeners who want irises as part of a perennial border than those who crave a monoculture dedicated to one flowering genus.

Iris pallida 'Zebra' with dianthus (left) and Iris norrissii in container (right)

Unfortunately, I do not have a blank palette to work with. My former summer garden which used to contain about a hundred sun coleus and a few choice perennials was decimated over the last couple of years by large trees falling on it. The first tree to fall, was quite charming. It pulled partly out of the ground and “lay” suspended at a forty-degree angle over the back of the flowerbed. It was a pine tree that did not die, but continued to grow sideways such that it appeared as a giant bonsai. It was very picturesque. The root ball half out of the ground made this large mound that became covered with moss and it looked like a three-foot hobbit’s house. Overall, the effect was quite magical. This fairytale-like setting lasted perhaps a year but then other trees began to fall from different directions. Soon this crisscrossed pile was a mess stacking a good 10 feet tall. Unfortunately, my health declined such that I could not start a chainsaw. The tree pile would have to wait until I felt better. Immediately Scuppernong Grapevine took hold and tied the branches all together. Through this incredible structure, blackberries and Japanese honeysuckle rose up. The blackberries made it nasty with their thorns and the crowning touch was a Smilax rotundifolia (common name: Greenbrier).

"Hobbit House" of moss from roots of fallen three. Since tree is now cut the house is sinking.

If you do not live in the South, you may not know the potential of Smilax rotundifolia. It is an edible asparagus relative. If you have read the “Uncle Remus Tales” with Briar Rabbit and Briar Fox you may have a clue as to how nasty this plant can be. The mature stems are a bright green but quite woody, sometimes with inch-long thorns. It is said to develop large tubers deep underground from which it can send up stalks that may rise several feet in a week. When we first moved here, we tackled a large briar patch with a large piece of equipment that could grind up trees to create roads through the forest. But unfortunately, I did not want to create a road to and through my flowerbed. Because of the risk of copperheads, I did not want to attack this tangle until winter. Late this winter I began removing big tubs of plant material each day. Now only a small corner of “The pile” still exists. But it is time to plant so work on the bed has shifted.

Greenbrier coming through hosta

The corner of the tree pile remains about one third of its original height

I plant everything in my garden in large pots (usually 5 gallon). This allows me …in theory… to move things around. Filled with moist soil, each potted plant can weigh up to 45 pounds wet. Thus, moving plants around rarely happens. I also plant in pots because many locations in my yard have less than an inch of soil before hitting rock. They do not call the town Roxboro for nothing! As the plants grow, they hide the pots and the bed looks like a normal flowerbed. Well almost! Plants are less hardy above ground in a pot, but placing many together improves hardiness. Irises and many perennials have little trouble overwintering. I think a few perennials may actually do better because they are well-drained during the winter.

I also use annuals for an early summer punch of color. The collector in me comes through because I strive for over a hundred varieties of sun coleus. I love the tapestry many varieties create much like a Persian carpet. But in years past, I grew them in one-gallon pots. If not reliably pinched back, by the end of summer, they can become too tall for the best effect and it will be a challenge to get them to look just right when the Iris norrissii is in bloom.

Sun coleus last year making colorful tapestry

More Sun coleus

Another ongoing challenge I face is rabbits. I try to surround the garden with rabbit fences, but it only deters them. It does not keep them out. Sadly, the fencing also makes it difficult for me to walk through the garden. My wife complains that she cannot pick up the flowers without good paths. But the paths make it easy for the rabbits and our Wolfhounds love to inspect the garden during their walks. They can easily jump over the fences. But I dare not create a dead-end path because the dogs will plow right through the plants to continue out.

Dogs are a potential garden hazard

I thought I would be clever and plant some poisonous plants so the rabbits would find the area unattractive. Milkweed Asclepias tuberosa is a beautiful plant that attracts and feeds Monarch butterflies; so of course it was first on my list. The milky sap should be distasteful and yet as it came up I found plants that the rabbit had trimmed back. This species of butterfly weed comes in bright yellow (‘Hello Yellow’) and the normal intense orange.

Asclepias tuberosa

Years ago, I met the Iris hybridizer Carl Wyatt. He hybridized an early tall bearded rebloomer ‘Corn Harvest’. I went to his garden in June because I wanted to see his butterfly weeds. He used to supply seed to Park’s Seed and had acres and acres of Asclepias in full bloom. Imagine a ten-acre plot of deep red Asclepias tuberosa. He even had flowers that were red and yellow combo resembling the Mexican tropical Asclepias curassavica. He showed me one plant which was a cross between the common milkweed A. syriaca and A. tuberosa that had large pink flowers. The mixture of red/yellow A. tuberosa seed was offered as ‘Gay Butterflies’. Unfortunately, the Dutch have corrupted the original name by adding Swamp milkweed A. incarnata to the mix. I still order ‘Gay Butterflies’ hoping to reclaim the deep red scarlet that Carl had searched long and hard for. But back to the rabbits!

'Corn Harvest'
photo by Elladan McLeester

Marigolds are supposed to smell bad. Personally, I love the odor. They provide bright color and if they don’t stop the rabbits at least they may discourage a few bugs. So, of course marigolds would be an annual I would want in the garden.

The summer garden is also my wife’s cutting garden and she loves to pick daisies. Marigolds are in the daisy family along with zinnias, tithonias, rudbeckias, echinacea, shasta daisies, coreopsis, cosmos, etc. I try to incorporate all of these into the garden. I try to include as many perennial daisies as possible. Ordering a hybrid cultivar Rudbeckia (Gloriosa Daisy) may cost $16 each. I am fortunate to live within driving distance of Big Bloomers nursery where I can find seedlings in 4 packs for $4. If I was industrious I could also sow the seeds myself but without a greenhouse it is difficult to get them started early enough.

Many new Echinacea, Rudbeckias and Coreopsis are making their ways into the “Big Box” stores. Coreopsis especially has undergone wonderful transformations at the hand of Darrell Probst. Darrell is also an Iris hybridizer all that part of his work certainly does not support him like his world-famous tickseeds. But his Iris Norrissiis I hope will be an important part of this summer garden. I have a few on order from Joe Pye Weed gardens that should arrive in July.


Iris norrissii 'Butterfly Magic' (left) and 'Spooky World' (right)

Iris norrissii 'Mandarin Lady' (left) and 'Pastel Parfait' (right)

So presently I am trying to get this collection of plants into large pots for the garden. Fortunately, I was able to pick up some reblooming irises in pots at our local Iris Show. By carefully moving them into larger pots and babying them with water and fertilizer I hope to get them to bloom for this Summer/Fall.

Work has also ground to a halt in the back of the middle of the garden. A Carolina Wren has built a nest in one of the pots in from of the brush pile I want to remove. Carolina Wrens are a strange bird that likes to be in the middle of things. For several years we had them build nests in the wreath hanging on our front door. When you opened the door, they would explode out from the wreath. If you opened it too fast, they were likely to fly into the house rather than away from it. One year they kept slipping through our screen door and built a nest in a light fixture on the screened-in porch. Unfortunately, we had no clue until we turned on the light and the fixture burst into flames. Fortunately, the babies had already fledged. My present wren bursts off the nest when I get within a couple of feet so temporarily, she owns that part of the garden until her babies are grown.

Carolina Wren

I think the best part of gardening is dreaming about what could be. I hope I will be successful at creating some pretty garden pictures. Yet I can already hear another nearby tree creaking that could become another calamity for the garden. Or perhaps the rabbit will suddenly acquire a taste for another garden plant. But maybe I will win for a change, and bring forth some great images of Irises in the garden. If you would like to help me out, add some of your own images to the garden page listed above.

 Last year's Iris norrissi 'Hello Yellow'

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