Monday, January 14, 2019

Irises as Part of the Perennial Border

By Kevin Vaughn

I grew up in Massachusetts in the AIS of the 60’s and when we went on tours the iris were not grown like a corn field but rather as a part of a garden picture. 
'Cup Race' was one of the famous irises to come out of the Stedman Buttrick garden.
Image courtesy of Schreiner's Iris Gardens.
Some of these gardens were impressive beyond words.  Leola Fraim’s, Miriam Corey’s and Stedman Buttrick’s gardens were amazing collections of irises but housed with an equally impressive array of other perennials.  Almost every garden had three perennials that bloomed essentially along with the irises. Peonies, in shades of rose and pink, were used to complement the abundant blues of the irises, and were especially effective against clumps of blue Siberian irises.  The peonies were large enough that they could almost be used as shrubs in these borders.  Oriental poppies were very much the rage in that era. The Fischer Oriental poppies brought to the public a range of colors and forms that had not been seen previously.   Clean pinks, whites, and raspberry shades were now in the palette of colors available to the gardener in addition to the more vibrant (and less easy to use in landscaping) oranges and reds.   When the Countess von Stein Zeppelin visited from Germany, she was so impressed that she negotiated with Mr. Fischer for seeds and plants of hers so that she could develop her own strain for European gardeners. In Massachusetts, lupines were almost weeds (in fact they have naturalized in places in Maine) and the Russell strain offered clear colors and much better density of the flowers on the heads than in previous strains.  One plant that was popular in Massachusetts at that time was the gas plant (Dictamnus).  Mrs. Corey had actually crossed the dark rose and white strains and had several unusual shades of white veined pink and clear pink.  These are very solid plants. One of the fond memories of my youth in Massachusetts was blooming a seedling from Mrs. Corey’s strain and also lighting the gas with a match.  Odd that you don’t see them more used today.

Besides what we were observing at iris peak almost every one of these gardens featured daffodils and other spring bulbs, daylilies and towards the shadier portions, hosta.  In many cases, these “other companion plants” became interests of their owners too and almost everyone dabbed a little pollen from one of these groups as well as the iris.  Consequently, the collections of these plants were also state of the art.  A visit to these gardens even before or after iris peak was still a treat.

All of these yards had another component that most of us don’t think of as part of the garden: beautiful pristine lawns that bordered every bed.  Lawns are like the frame on the picture. They offer a refreshing green that cools the effect of the garden and sets off all the plantings.   In the Buttrick garden, these lawns flowed gently down to the banks of the scenic Concord River.

Polly Bishop, who was my mentor, had a lovely perennial garden, although not on the scale of the bigger gardens in Region 1.  She had crossed pansies with Johnny jump-ups to create a strain of hardy hybrids that self-sowed and blanketed the irises and bloomed throughout the year.  These were shallow-rooted plants and provided a living mulch around the bearded irises in the winter. In Polly’s garden, hardy succulents such a sedums and hens-and-chickens, were used to highlight the beds as well as many other rock garden type plants. These plants liked the same sharp-drained soil conditions as the bearded irises and added interest in both foliage and in flower.

Admittedly, that it is MUCH easier to manage irises in rows in terms of cultivation.  You can’t run a rototiller through a perennial border!  One only has to look at the magnificent display gardens at Schreiner’s here in Salem Oregon to see how effective irises can be as part of a much bigger picture.  I’m talking to myself somewhat here too.  Although I don’t do corn rows, I do use raised beds chiefly of bearded irises.  The spurias and Siberians are much more integrated into the borders and the Pacific Coast Natives are incorporated into the shade borders.  Now to work on those bearded beds Kevin!


  1. What a great look back, Kevin. Love the images you create as you take us down memory lane! Thank you for the mention, too. Yes, now to work... Cheerio!

    1. Yes I wish that everyone had the chance to visit these gardens in MA at their prime. Tool lots of time and an artist's eye to pull it off.

  2. Thank you! I love these ideas, some of which I already use.

  3. Thanks! I have vowed to start some dictamnus out here in Oregon too!


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