Monday, November 23, 2020

Winter Pastimes for Iris Enthusiasts

by Tom Waters

Thanksgiving week is upon us. Here in northern New Mexico, that means the garden is already put to bed for the winter. The first killing frost came late this year, near the end of October. But now everything is on hold, waiting for spring to bring it all back to life in March.

So what is a fanatical iris lover to do with all this time indoors? This is actually a welcome opportunity to catch up on various chores that get shunted aside during the growing season.

The first of my winter tasks is to update my garden maps. Garden maps are essential if you have more than just a handful of irises to keep track of. Many people use garden labels to identify their irises, but even if you do, a map is still essential. Labels can get pulled up, become illegible, or become damaged in all sorts of ways. Personally, I do not use labels with most of my irises; I find them unsightly and I strive for a more naturalistic look in my garden. So for me, a map is not just a backup, it is essential.

It is a good idea to make a map as accurate as possible. I have irregular shaped flower beds, and just sketching the shapes of the beds by eye can lead to bad distortions. So I actually measure to create the base map. It's a chore, but once done it does not need to be repeated often. As plants are removed, moved around, or added, it's simple enough to change the maps. I do this in the summer as I dig, replant, and add my new acquisitions. The result is a handful of papers - last year's maps with lots of pencil marks noting what has changed. Winter is the time to convert these scribbles into something more permanent.


I use Photoshop for my maps, but really any kind of drawing or graphics software would work fine. Why go to that trouble? Why not just use the original paper maps? The short answer is that computer files can be easily duplicated and backed up. If you've ever left a notebook outside and forgotten about it, you know the tragedy of irreplaceable records lost to weather damage. It's also all to easy for papers to get accidentally tossed or ruined, even when kept safe indoors.

Even if you don't want to use graphics software, it is a good practice to scan your hand-drawn maps and store them as computer files.


Winter is also the time to update whatever other records you keep on your irises. I keep track of the name and class of each iris I grow, where it is planted, when I obtained it and from whom, as well as hybridizer and year of introduction. There are specialized software applications specially designed to maintain records of garden plants, but I just use a regular spreadsheet. Almost everyone has Excel or a similar product on their computer, and keeping your records using a familiar standard product like this ensures that you will be able to maintain them even as the world of computers continues to change from year to year.

As a hybridizer, I also do some pedigree research over the winter. It's fun to trace the ancestry of the irises in your garden, and sometimes there are unexpected surprises in the family tree. The AIS Iris Encyclopedia is a good reference for doing this kind of ancestry research.

I also sometimes use the winter months to plan what I intend to discard or acquire in the coming year. Before the catalogs start coming in the spring, it is possible to impose a little discipline on oneself and make sensible decisions about how many new plants to bring into the garden. Of course, I never manage to adhere strictly to my plans, but setting some ground rules in the winter does help.

These winter chores actually provide some enjoyment for me. Maybe they are a kind of surrogate for being in the garden, as they draw my imagination into thoughts of next year's bloom.

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