Monday, July 30, 2018

Photo Essay: A Visit to Schreiner's Iris Gardens

By Mike Unser

In spring of 2018 I had the good fortune to take a day to travel to Salem, Oregon and visit the amazing Schreiner's Iris Gardens. Schreiner's is one of America's longest running commercial iris gardens, first established in 1925, and is still run by the same family. They are more than just fields of irises for sale tho - their display garden is renowned for its beauty, and is a favorite destination for iris lovers around the world. The gardens are very well thought out with companion plants that help showcase the beauty of irises in a garden setting, and I spent several hours enjoying the blooms and taking photos. I hope you'll enjoy this photographic tour of the display gardens, and if you ever get to Oregon in May do not miss your chance to experience the beauty in person. It is well worth the trip.

First up - garden shots.

I normally don't like to have people in my photos but I made an exception for this gentleman. He has the enviable job of spending the day examining the flowers and deadheading the irises to make everything look as beautiful as it can for the visitors. 

A closer look at some of the irises. Varietal names are on the photos.

A closer look at some of the companion plants.

A blazing red geum.

Creamy pastel peonies.

I hope you enjoyed this brief tour. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

Fertilizing Irises

by Tom Waters

When I first began growing irises in the 1970s, the standard advice (and it was not new advice even then) was “fertilize with superphosphate and/or a balanced fertilizer low in nitrogen, such as 5-10-10, in spring before bloom and again in fall”. The advice was repeated everywhere, without reference to climate or soil. This was the heyday of the use of synthetic chemicals in the garden. Every problem, major or minor, had a solution that came out of a bag or cardboard box.

Much has been learned since then that should put a damper of our enthusiasm for synthetic fertilizers. Sadly, however, that knowledge seems to have not permeated very much into the culture of iris enthusiasts. Almost daily, I read the same advice I heard decades ago repeated on Facebook and other discussion fora, still without qualification or any evidence of caution or indeed reflection. People don’t even seem to care whether their soil actually needs phosphorus; they just follow the advice without question.

Have you ever wondered how plant life has flourished on Earth for more than 400 million years before there were factories to synthesize superphosphate? Have you ever wondered how the great gardeners of Victorian England managed to grow irises without plastic bags of fertilizer granules?

A walk in a nearby forest. Funny, these trees have gotten awfully large without superphosphate each spring and fall.

In nature, the nutrients essential to plant growth are perpetually recycled. All plant and animal tissues contain nitrogren and phosphorus and the other essential elements, and as these tissues decompose, soil microbes process them through stages until the nutrients are once again accessible to the roots of growing plants. Recently, we have become more and more aware of the complex ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and small plants and animals that exists in healthy soil, and the role they play in sustaining the larger plants and animals that live above ground. Plants on Earth have evolved in conjunction with soil life to make the most use of the natural processes by which nutrients are recycled. Have you heard of mycrorrhizal fungi? These soil fungi exist in symbiosis with plant roots, extracting and processing soil nutrients for the plants in exchange for carbohydrate food which the plant produces by photosynthesis. They can increase the nutrients available to plants more than a hundredfold. This is but one example of the complex interaction between plants and the soil life that supports them. Soil organisms provide many other benefits to plants, such as reducing susceptibility to pathogens.

If nutrients were not recycled through living soil ecosystems in this way, every spot of Earth would become completely barren of life in a short period of time.
This handful of soil contains billions of microorganisms - more microscopic living creatures than there are human beings on Earth.

Feed the Soil, Not the Plants

Synthetic fertilizers bypass this natural process of nutrient recycling in the soil, essentially giving the plants a direct injection of specific nutrients, such as nitrogen or phosphorus. This can be very effective in producing growth, especially if the amount of nutrients available naturally through the soil is small. The agricultural revolution of the twentieth century was made possible in large part by supplying additional nitrogen and phosphorus in this way, thus increasing agricultural yields even in poor soils. But is there no “down side”?

The first potential problem with synthetic fertilizer use is that it affects everything in the soil, not just the plants you grow. All the soil microorganisms now find themselves in a radically different chemical environment, one they are not evolved to deal with. The additional nutrients can cause a population explosion in the microorganisms, which then devour every bit of organic matter in the soil. With the organic matter (their food source) gone, the microorganisms die off, leaving a soil without organic matter and without much life. The plants you grow have gotten their quick boost of nitrogen or phosphorus, and you can pat yourself on the back at how big and green they have become, but beneath your feet the web of life that supports them has been damaged or destroyed. As Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery explained, “If all you ate were Snickers bars, would you get larger? Absolutely! No question! You would get dramatically larger. But would you be healthy? That is the difference.”

Once the soil ecosystem has been damaged or destroyed, the synthetic fertilizer “boost” becomes an addiction. Without a healthy soil ecosystem, the plants now need the regular application of synthetic nitrogen and phosphorus to provide what the soil would otherwise provide naturally. The garden is now essentially an experiment in hydroponics, with the soil merely anchoring the plants in place as you wash solutions of chemicals past their roots.

Organic gardening uses an approach that seeks to enhance the natural nutrient cycling process, rather than bypass and cripple it. By building your soil with compost or other organic matter, the soil life builds up in a sustainable way. The organic matter not only provides the nutrients needed by the plants and the soil life, but also provides that soil life with the carbon-rich organic matter that is its food source. You thus secure not just the short-term benefit of a nutrient injection, but the long term benefits of healthy, living soil.

Nutrient Pollution

That might be enough to make a thoughtful person reconsider reliance on synthetic fertilizer. But there is more. Waterways in the US and indeed all over the world are being destroyed by synthetic fertilizer use, through a process called eutrophication.

When excess phosphorous or nitrogen applied to farms, lawns, and gardens makes its way into streams and lakes, the nutrients create a population explosion of algae that quickly consume available food and and block sunlight, depriving the water of oxygen and choking out the other water life. (Sound familiar? It is not dissimilar to what happens to the soil life when you saturate them with nutrients.) About half our lakes now suffer from eutrophication. The situation has become so severe than eleven states have enacted bans on phosphorus fertilizers. These bans all have various exceptions, so you may not be restricted from spreading superphosphate on your irises, depending on where you live. But it should give one pause for thought. If the environmental damage caused by phosphate fertilizers is becoming so severe that legislatures are trying to stop it, do we really need to be adding to the problem in our home gardens? [For an excellent summary of the history of phosphate fertilizer and the problems it causes currently, check out this episode of the Gastropod podcast.]

Climate Change and Sustainability

Fossils fuels are essential to the production of synthetic fertilizers, nitrogren and phosphorus fertilizers both. We now know that the Earth is plummeting rapidly toward higher global temperatures, faster than ever before in the geologic record, and faster than life can adapt. The Permian extinction, which eradicated 90% of life on Earth, was triggered by a global temperature increase of only about 5 degrees Celsius. We need to think of a better way of meeting our agricultural and horticultural needs, very soon.

The nitrogen for synthetic fertilizers comes from the atmosphere, but the phosphorus must be mined and extracted from minerals. This is a finite resource, and it is already under stress. We need to return to the natural process of recycling the phosphorus that is already incorporated in plant and animal tissues, rather than extracting the last reserves from the ground and poisoning our lakes with excess run-off.

Fertilizer Advice for the 21st Century

So if the advice from fifty years ago is so problematic, what is one to do? Here is how I answer the question of how to fertilize irises.

1. Build your soil. Add lots of organic matter. Compost is the form closest to what the plants can use, but even partially decomposed organic matter will benefit the soil. Not only will you be providing nutrients and encouraging your soil life, but you will be improving the soil’s structure, too. Soil with organic matter mixed in holds both air and water better, and has improved texture. This is a win all around. Keep this up.

2. Observe your plants. If you’ve been building your soil for several years, chances are your plants will be healthy and getting what they need. You’ll have Earthworms and insects enjoying your soil too. Now go have a lemonade. Most gardeners will never have to proceed to the following steps.

3. Identify the problem. If there is a problem, figure out what it is. If your plants still seem sickly or fail to thrive, have your soil tested. Don’t just guess and dump things on your soil, because an advertisement or someone on the internet says a particular product will work miracles. This can do more harm than good.

4. Research solutions. If your soil really is deficient in a particular nutrient, despite all your soil building work, investigate the options for addressing the deficiency. There are organic sources for most nutrients, and those are to be preferred.
Yes, they do bloom. This bed was planted eight years ago. No synthetic fertilizers have ever been used.

And Finally…

These are messages that not everyone is receptive to. I understand. I started gardening in a time when following that old advice just meant you were a good gardener. Now, it has come under criticism, and some of those criticisms seem to carry moralizing overtones. I, like many other advocates of organic gardening methods, have a certain passion about the subject. But that does not mean I expect everyone who reads this to have some kind of religious conversion and abandon their evil ways. Rather, my goal is more modest. I’d just like to see all iris growers study a bit. Learn a bit about soil. Learn a bit about fertilizer pollution. Learn a bit about organic methods. Then follow up with making a few new choices you are comfortable with, and try them out. Then see what your irises have to say.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The AIS Region 14 Spring Regional

by Jean Richter

Every region of the American Iris Society holds a spring meeting, often including garden visits and irises planted specifically for the event. AIS Region 14 (which includes northern California, Nevada, and Hawaii) held its 2018 spring meeting, Butterflies in the Mountains, on May 11-13 of this year. The event was held in and around the town of Mariposa (the Spanish word for butterfly), located in the Sierra Nevada mountain foothills on one of the major routes to Yosemite National Park. As the elevation of the tour gardens was around 3000 feet, the bloom season was a few weeks later than much of the rest of the region, affording irisarians some extra time in which to view their favorite flowers, and avoiding conflicts with other bloomtime events at lower altitudes.

 A butterfly lights atop 'Winter's  Smile' (Black 2016)

There were two tour gardens at this regional; the first we visited was Sky Ranch Gardens owned by Gary and Gail Collings in Oakhurst. The Collings have numerous rows of iris planted into a gently sloping hillside.

The Collings garden

Bill Tyson seedling

'Tropical Fruit Salad' (Kanarowski 2017)

In addition to the guest iris, one aspect of the Collings garden I very much enjoyed was seeing their extensive collection of "recent historic" and "almost historic" iris - varieties from the 1980s and early 1990s, many of which are becoming difficult to find. A number of these were also space age iris (with horns or other appendages on the beards of the flower), another favorite of mine.

'Sky Hooks' (Osborne 1979)

'Gold Speculator' (Williamson 1993)

'Zany' (Dunn 1987)

The second tour garden was the garden of Doug and Diane Kanarowski, located in the hills above Mariposa. In addition to many rows of iris, Doug and Diane have an extensive and beautiful garden around their home, with plantings of a wide variety of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, water features, a dovecote, and plenty of whimsy.

The Kanarowski garden

Doug is also a hybridizer, and incorporates a fair amount of whimsy into his iris names as well, for example: 'Big Hat No Cows.'

'Big Hat No Cows' (Kanarowski 2016)

The beautiful pastel colors of Kanarowski's 'Baby Duck' won it the Clara B. Rees Cup for best iris introduced prior to the current year by a Region 14 hybridizer.

 'Baby Duck' (Kanarowski 2016)

'Irresistable Charm' (Tasco 2016)

Many thanks to AIS Region 14 for putting on an enjoyable regional! Thanks also to my wife Bonnie Petheram for providing nearly all the pictures for this blog (all except 'Zany,' which was my photo).

Monday, July 9, 2018

California Dreaming 2--Bay View Gardens

By Bryce Williamson

Joe Ghio has been hybridizing irises for more than 50 years and is the proprietor of Bay View Gardens in Santa Cruz. While he has dabbled in other types of irises including Spurias and Louisianas, he is best known for his work with tall bearded and Pacific Coast Native irises. This spring I was able to not only visit the home garden—spread over a vacant lot and the backyards of the two house next to his house—but also the “farm” at Freedom, California. While part of the farm is rented out to a blackberry grower, Joe does have long rows of irises and seedling there.

Joe was already an established hybridizer of tall bearded irises when he decided to breed Pacific Coast Natives. His foundation irises included seed and species collected in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In the early days when Joe first started working with PCN’s, the flower had thin petals. If I had scheduled a visit to see them and it rained or Santa Cruz had high winds, I would have to reschedule since the flowers would be tattered. Not any longer the case—although still diploids, Joe has made major strides forward in flower durability and his recent hybrids hold up in wind and rain.

And the other amazing thing is the array of colors today. He has plicatas, bicolors, various lined flowers, and flowers with a contrasting eye at the heart of the flowers. The soft yellow and blue combinations are especially interesting. With this work, Joe has revitalized the interest in this group of irises. Sadly for many who will read this blog, the growing area for these lovely creations is limited.

Two Northern California hybridizers in the last 50 years have had a major impact on flower form. I have written in the past about Joe Gatty’s lovely creations and Joe’s huge, flower form changing work has been with “bubble ruffling.” Gone are the plain, tailored flowers of yester year and in are flowers with deeply ruffling and fluting. Joe’s bubble ruffled flowers forced all other tall bearded hybridizers to work ruffling into their creations.

Joe did win the Dykes Memorial Medal with ‘Mystique’, but I think judges missed another one of his early creations—‘Lady Friend’. I put it on the short list of irises that should have won the Dykes. It is an enduring creation that continues to be very popular today and one of those unique colors that has not been duplicated.

The following images are of some of Joe’s more recent creations.

Any one interesting in buying from Bay View Gardens can send $3.00 for a color catalogue to 1201 Bay Street, Santa Cruz, California 95060. Joe ships bearded irises in July and August and PCN’s in late October or November.

Editor’s note: This is the second part of my ‘On the Road Again’ blogs. The pervious one was about Nola’s iris garden and next in line will be Fleur de Lis at Modesto, California.


Monday, July 2, 2018

Developing More Color Patterns Into Rebloomers

by Ginny Spoon

'Little John' -- photo by Ginny Spoon

One of the goals of an iris hybridizer is developing new hybrids with richer colors and new color patterns. When we crossed 'Damsel' with 'Queen Dorothy' one of the results was our 'Little John'. It was a cross of a non reblooming iris with one that was a reliable rebloomer  (Queen Dorothy) in our colder zone 6. 'Damsel' is a lavender pink with a tangerine beard and has not been reported to rebloom in any zone, so that is what we call a rebloom carrier. You can see by the photo that is where 'Little John' gets its lovely color combination.  'Queen Dorothy' is a plicata and have gotten  plicatas and variegated flowers out of crosses with 'Little John'.

'Liquid Amber' -- photo by Ginny Spoon

Taking our 'Little John' and crossing it with another warm climate rebloomer, 'Lady Juliet' (zone 7), we got our reliable zone 6 rebloomer 'Liquid Amber'.  Don has long admired the West Coast hybridizer, the late  Monty Byers, who used cold climate rebloomers for crosses with the warmer zone rebloomers to develop better form and color patterns. Raymond Smith from the Midwest and Lloyd Zurbrigg from Canada and then the east coast also used this method to produce more modern cold climate rebloomers.

'Daughter of Stars' -- photo by Ginny Spoon

Our Wister Medal 'Daughter of Stars' is a good example of a cross with a cold climate rebloomer ('Clarence') by a carrier ('Mind Reader') producing not only a zone 6 rebloomer but a lovely luminata pattern as well. The lovely pink 'Vanity' by Ben Hager is another carrier that has been reported to rebloom in the warmer zones is in the parentage of many cold climate rebloomers. 'Starring' a beautiful non rebloomer by 'Daughter of Stars' produced a lovely cold climate rebloomer, 'Starring Encore'.

'Starring Encore' -- photo by Ginny Spoon

Immortality' --  photo by Ginny Spoon

Taking Midsummer's Eve X Fancy Woman (another carrier) we got BB 'Twiggy' a much better formed pink.  Both 'Twiggy' and our 'Love Goes On', both prolific rebloomers here, have produced early rebloomers with more saturated colors and more modern form. 'Love Returns' (Twiggy X Love Goes On ) is a good example. 'Midsummer's Eve' has 'Immortality' in its parentage.

 'Vanity' -- photo by Ginny Spoon

Don tried over 25 crosses of pinks with the cold climate rebloomer 'Immortality' before he finally got our BB RE 'Midsummer's Eve' While not the best form, 'Midsummer's Eve' has been the parent of many reliable and beautiful cold climate rebloomers.

 'Twiggy' -- photo by Ginny Spoon

'Love Returns' -- photo by Ginny Spoon

I have to relate a story about when 'Little John' was just a seedling. When Don was first hybridizing, and before we were married, he planted his seedlings surrounding his office of the Georgetown Observatory on the campus at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. where he taught Biology and Ecology. He also planted his excess seedlings in the Historic Colonial Farm in Accokeek, MD just across the river from Mt. Vernon. 

When the seedlings were blooming we would go and evaluate those we thought worthy of introduction. When I first saw 'Little John' it was love at first sight. We didn't have any tools with us and I wanted to take a piece home with me, but the ground was so dry that it was as hard as concrete. I would not be deterred so I took a rock and chipped out a few rhizomes and planted them in our garden in Cross Junction, Virginia. The next spring, we had a show stalk with 9 buds and perfect branching. Don said, "Get the shovel, we are going to get the rest!"

            Future introduction, reblooms in zone 6 -- photo by Ginny Spoon

This is a cross of a reblooming seedling from Daughter of Stars X Autumn Explosion. So, from a cross of a non rebloomer back in the parentage that produced a strong cold climate rebloomer, then crossed on another cold climate rebloomer, we have quit a lovely pattern and color combination on a reblooming iris.