Friday, January 1, 2016

Begin at the beginning...if you can remember when it began

By Vanessa Spady

It all started for me quite some time ago, at least several decades, but the exact moment is lost. It probably wasn’t really a moment, though, it was more like a gradual awareness, and then an appreciation, and before I knew it, like so many others, I was officially an iris enthusiast. If you aren’t aware of the dramatic and exciting world of iris, then, yes, I am referring to the flowers.

When did I fall in love with iris? I can’t really say. But fall in love I did, and that love has inspired a project, the breadth and scope of which only love could inspire! Yes, this is a love story, to be sure!

'Twice Told' (William Maryott, R. 1994). Sdlg. L172D. TB, 34-36" (86-91 cm). 
Midseason bloom and rebloom. Standards flesh to light beige, slight maroon at midrib; Falls velvety medium red maroon; beards tangerine. H92B: (F154D: (('Latin Lover' x 'Victorian Days') x Keppel 74-32E: (('Roundup' x 'Artwork' sib) x 'Osage Buff')) x E31D: (('Dream Fantasy' x 'Pink Sleigh') x 'Heather Blush')) X 'Cameo Wine'. Maryott 1994.


So, onto the players: Vanessa (that’s me) and Chris, two ladies who have pesky day jobs but still garden with a passion. We are members of local chapters of The American Iris Society, and have had plenty of dirt under our nails. We met because of iris, and we have an absolute hoot gardening and talking shop and getting grimy in our gardens together. What fun it is to have an iris buddy!

The plot is a simple one, or rather, it seemed simple when we first conceived it: grow iris. Well, ok, we are already doing that, so grow more iris. Have a touring garden. Work on a larger scale. Experiment with growing environments, layouts, watering systems. Meet the challenges of our climate and topography. Walk the line between full-on, blown-out love for iris growing, and the tweaky, quirky, danger zone of iris obsession. So, it seems this is a comedy.

The setting: an almost rural neighborhood in central California. Chris has beds at her place, and I have some almost-feral beds at my home, but the primary focus of the growing project is at a separate property on my block. The weather here varies from very hot summer days (often over 110°F) to below freezing winter nights. The soil varies, too: concrete in the summer, pudding in the winter. And we have our share of hazardous critters, primarily ground squirrels and large gophers, but also sheep, dogs, gardeners, and the occasional raccoon. Thus you can tell this story is a farce.

The inspiration: We have toured professional grower’s facilities, and have been educated and warned that growing for fun and growing for profit are very different activities. Since we’re both level-headed and practical, we are not proposing to put anyone growing professionally out of business, but we want to expand our gardens to a more-than-average scope. We will be growing iris out of love for the plants, not a grab for gold. So obviously, this story is a drama.

 'Heartbreak Hotel' ( George Sutton, R. 1997). Sdlg. G-19-ARSA. TB, 37" (94 cm), Midseason late bloom. Standards and style arms salmon (RHS 27A); Falls imperial purple (78A); beards nasturtium red (32B), 1" salmon and violet purple horn; ruffled, laced; slight sweet fragrance. 'Sweet Musette' X 'Twice Thrilling'. Sutton 1998.

To anyone who is already an iris enthusiast, or expert, or grower, or casual gardener, this may sound familiar. To anyone outside the world of iris, this story will probably be an eye opener, and a tour through a world you might hardly imagine really exists. It has all the makings of an epic, spanning centuries and continents, involving science and luck, with characters from every place that has enough dirt and enough sun and enough water to grow a few weeds.

I won’t cover that much ground in this first post, but no doubt I will eventually tell of the adventures of the humble and magnificent iris, and its swashbuckling journey from the old world to the new, from manor house to interstate rest-stop, and mostly, of how two nice ladies in the countryside are going to try their hands at growing iris for more than just the fun of it.

Certainly, there will be laughter and tears, great successes, and frustrating setbacks. And once a year, there will be a glorious, magnificent, stunning bloom season. That’s our reward.

While sharing our process will be fun and hopefully entertaining, sharing our blooms and our love of iris is really the main goal. Although we are well out of bloom season now, I promise to include photos in each post, to remind all of us why we go to so much trouble for one little plant.

Yes, it is a love story.

'Revere' (Joseph Ghio, R. 2001). Seedling 97-36B. TB, height 40" (102 cm). Very early to early mid season bloom. Standards white, yellow halo; style arms white, fringed gold;Falls white, blue rim; beards gold. 95-36C. 'Impulsive' sibling, X 'Dear Jean'. Bay View 2002. 


  1. looking forward to your next post! I am at that point of much enthusiasm and less space to grow irises in. Growing pains! I'm interested to see what you did.

  2. Welcome, Vanessa! I enjoyed your article very much! I have read the same story and know know exactly where you are coming from. Thank you! Can't wait for your next post.

  3. Yes, I am starting a very small (artisanal) iris farm in Umbria, Italy. Can never be anything but an affair of the heart. La Grande Bellezza...

  4. loved your article Vanessa and can definitely relate! Iris obsession is reaching epic proportions thanks to Facebook and other social media!! Enjoy and happy gardening!

  5. Thank you so much! I think this is a good problem to have: such enthusiasm and joy for gardening, and particularly iris. As much as I love working in the garden, I am enjoying the writing, too. It allows me to work on my garden from indoors!

  6. As a young child, I loved iris. As a young adult, I wanted to learn to hybridize. My godsister and I were taught by no less than Lucia McKay who was an incredible amateur hybridizer. She gave us a copy of her journal of no less than 30 years of hybridizing on the condition that we each teach at least one person younger than ourselves and share the journal with them. We both did. That was almost 50 years ago. Now, I grow only my favorites with fewer than two dozen and I do no breeding. I just enjoy celebrating the efforts of others.


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