Monday, April 27, 2020

Tackling Overgrown Pacific Iris Patches

By Kathleen Sayce, April 26, 2020

What’s a body to do when the stay-at-home order will last another few weeks of spring, and there’s only so much cleaning and sorting inside my house a body can stand? 

The answer is:  Dig out that garden bed I’ve been promising to redo for at least five years! 
Iris douglasiana Lobster Creek, a wild selection given to me by Kareen Sturgeon
The basic plan was to remove two huge overgrown rhododendrons, one of which tip-rooted into seven plants, move a pillar rose to a new position—to clear the view from a window for better bird watching, remove all the plants along one side of the bed and into it more than four feet, so the low wall enclosing it could be moved. Then replant.

There's an iris in there somewhere, among bluebells (Hyacinthoides x massartina, Scilloideae) and fringecups (Tellima grandiflora, Saxifragaceae) 

The patch of rhodies came out first, then the rose, protective cage (deer, don't ask!) and its pole were moved. Plants were dug out of the wall-moving area, and either potted up temporarily, or gifted on. 

A gardener in the neighborhood was pleased to get >90 starts of PCI ‘Cape Ferrello’ along with dozens of other odds and ends for a summer garden sale, hopefully in July. Still, I had many more plants in pots than were planned on, so stay-at-home order or not, there was a trip to a local nursery for potting soil and a hunt round my garden shed for gallon pots. Then an email out to gardening friends, begging for more pots. . .

After carefully removing soil, there were ample fresh white roots to be seen,
so I got out my shovel, and lifted one large shovelful of fans and rhizomes.

At last only the largest, single-stem old rhodie remained. I dug around it, using a new shovel, all metal, with a stout flange for feet, so strong that I can probably bend it, but unlike several former shovels, cannot break the handle. [I have been waiting for this shovel all my life!] Much digging with said shovel over several days as mounds of soil grew to both sides. Then clipping roots. Digging with a hand trowel and lifting soil into a bucket. More root clipping. Finally, I could rock the root mass. 

Free of soil, the mass of rhizomes can be inspected, and trimmed.
I cut off the older portions of rhizomes, leaving the last 1-2 years with fresh white roots.

Eventually I rocked it enough to break free the lower roots—which is when I realized that to get it out of the bed, it would have to pass over a large patch of Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus, Asteraceae) and my only patch of Iris douglasiana 'Lobster Creek'. I’ve been planning to start new patches of this iris for years, spreading it around my garden, but you know how far those intentions went, until this spring. 

Consultation with adorable spouse ensued. I backfilled the hole with the piles of soil, rocking the root mass ever higher on the fill, until it was only 6 inches below the bed surface, lifted up more than a foot. Adorable spouse found ropes and a sturdy board, roped the root mass to it, and together we lifted it out of the bed and over the irises onto the lawn. Slick!

From one shovelful, 21 fans, trimmed and ready to replant

Back to irises:  
Iris douglasiana lives along the coast from south central California to southern Oregon. This particular wild-grown selection came to me years ago from a friend in the McMinnville area southwest of Portland, OR. It has typical species-type lavender flowers, and striking dark evergreen leaves. It’s vigorous in the garden and holds its own with fringecups and other plants. The foliage is gorgeous on its own. 

Some of the pots of fans. Planted 3-4 starts per pot,
plan on having them 
all in the ground by fall 

I dug out along one side of the patch, removed the bluebell bulbs. Dug out the fringecups, which seed all over the garden and give year round color to the bed with their light green leaves. I dug one shovelful of PCI Lobster Creek from the patch. More than twenty fans trimmed and planted into seven pots later, no matter how flat the remaining patch is smashed, some will survive. I estimate another sixty starts remain in the patch. [I’ll be calling my friend to come get the rest.] 

Once the wall is moved, I will plant a mix of Pacifica irises, fleabanes, Sisyrinchium, and other perennials in the newly cleared bed. That takes care of the north fifteen feet. Only forty more feet to go. . . 


  1. Great post.Loved the detail of digging/up out of the rhodie root mass. Think we have been there and done similar, in my case mature clumps of crinum. Too bad pacific iris will not succeed here in hot humid Georgia.Randy/GA

  2. Crinum! They grow so deeply that I can't imagine digging them out with any ease at all.


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