Monday, November 24, 2014

Growing the Guest Irises


By Renee Fraser

In the spring of 2016, the American Iris Society Region 15 Garden Tour will come to my area, and for the first time I volunteered to grow guest irises in hopes that they will survive my gardening skills long enough to put on at least one show of blooms for the attendees. 

In case you are unfamiliar with these tours, each year hybridizers of new irises send dozens of rhizomes of their newest creations out across the country to live in "guest gardens" two to three years before national or regional garden tours.  Volunteers grow the irises and record their performance, and iris lovers sign up, load onto buses or into car caravans, and tour all of the gardens during the treks.  Iris judges take notes about the new plants and evaluate their health, vigor, and blooms. 

My original intent in volunteering to grow these irises was to have an excuse for expanding my garden beds at the expense of my husband's lawn.  Mikey and I are like two feudal lords, jealously guarding the borders of our domains and expanding into neighboring lands when our opponent is occupied on other fronts.  My latest strategy is a row of unmortared bricks lining my beds.  Using a half-moon edger, I can slice out three to four inches of unprotected St. Augustine grass in under an hour, move the bricks out, and pretend like I have just "edged" the lawn for my husband.  The request from the San Fernando Valley Iris Society to grow guest irises was the perfect excuse for demanding a huge island bed in the center of the lawn, where the sun is best, since the big coast redwoods shade the rest of the yard.  My bid was foiled, however, when Mikey offered to fell the ailing and dehydrated coast redwoods, letting sun stream into one of my existing beds instead.  This I allowed, since his other offer was to add an arbor so he could hang himself.

It turned out that the 44 guest irises would not fit into the existing bed, so I claimed imminent domain over about two feet of grass in the borderlands.  A treaty was agreed to, and I began my expansion.  I quickly realized that Mikey had taken me in:  this area of the lawn was infested with Bermuda grass!  This required double-digging, and much screening of dirt.  I wanted the irises to be in raised beds, but to look naturally planted, so I carted in wheelbarrows full of dirt from a neighbor.  Three bags of vermiculite, four bags of soil amendments, and a few wheelbarrows of composted chicken manure from the girls were dug into the soil as well.  (I generally just stick irises straight into the ground and ignore them and they give me a great show, so this preparation is due to unreasonable anxiety, not to any special needs of irises.)

The next challenge to growing irises in my garden is me.  I want lush, green, flower-filled English gardens and I live in a drought-stricken, hot inland Southern California valley.  I know, I know, I should accept the natural order of things and go native, and I have eliminated some of my favorites because they are so thirsty. Even with these changes, weekly irrigation is still a necessity, and that can cause irises to rot, especially when beds are irregularly shaped and lawn sprinkler water reaches them.  I left two patches of Japanese Blood Grass, which appreciates a good swim now and then, at a lower elevation in the bed in the vain hope that water will drain through the raised irises and into the gully of blood grass.  An old plowshare blocks the back spray from the worst offending Rainbird, and in this photo it appears that it will have the added benefit of knee-capping Mikey while he mows.  I shall hand-water the new plants when they get dry, and avoid watering in the heat of summer, which should help prevent rot.

The guest iris bed.  Please ignore the yellowed St. Augustine grass and the crispy Bridal Wreath Spireas and pray for rain in Southern California.  

After growing in pots in the shade through the hottest part of the summer,  I planted the irises in the new bed in September. The plants had healthy looking roots and seem to be adapting well to their new home.  I organized them according to color and height, with the area near my red rose in front of the tuteur for the red irises, the corals, oranges, peaches and pinks next, then warm orchid and red-violets, to purples in the back, over across the blood grass to coppers, tans, yellows and whites, and finally in the far back a few blues.  I stretched plastic bird-netting over the soil and cut holes for the irises to foil the excavations of squirrels, raccoons, oppossoms and Pogo the One-Eyed Cat. There is one Arilbred iris I am obsessing over, and one IB, since I have never grown them successfully in the past, but otherwise I have high hopes for the show in the spring.  I may plant color-coordinated violas between the irises for the trek.  What do you think?  Bare dirt, or a few violas, violets, and gazanias for ground cover? 


I'll be sure to post photos of any surviving plants in bloom this Spring.  And be sure to take a look at the American Iris Society website, join your local society, and plan on going on a Spring Garden Trek!



1 comment:

  1. Hahaha! You sound like my husband and I. He loves iris, and gave me the entire front yard to do with as I please. But I seldom fight fair, and he has to fight to keep me from planting the entire back yard--the one I'd said I'd leave as lawn for him and the dog.

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