Monday, February 27, 2023

What was your first flower?

Kathleen Sayce

There’s a theory that people who like plants and garden throughout their lives express that fascination at a very young age. It usually happens between ages 3 and 5, when we are avidly exploring the world. I know a birder who made that initial and lasting connection with another life form at age 2 (mallard duck), and wildlife biologists, ditto, ages 4 and 6 (rabbits and deer). 

A Pacifica Iris seedling in my garden, 2021

What was your first flower? Did that sense of connection change as you grew up?

I have a friend whose first fascinating organism was a pansy, at age 3. He saw a flowering pot at his grandparent’s house; his grandmother was a lifelong gardener. He picked it up, studied the plant, and was drawn in by the flower’s colors, complexity and petal shapes. He became a horticulturist, worked in well-known gardens and nurseries across the country, and now grows plants from all over the world, has a seedling garden where he grows dahlia crosses, and does amazing flower arrangements. Flowers became his life at age 3. 

For me, the fatally attractive flower was an iris, age 2. There was the snaky rhizome, creeping across the surface of the ground. It was so un-plant-like! The flower was stunning: standards and falls and shaggy beards in a fascinating asymmetry. The light shining through the purple petals was amazing. And the shape of the flower buds was simply entrancing. 

I now know this was a purple-flowered tall bearded iris, but to my young self, it opened up a view into the other half of the living world—plants. 

I wanted to weed out the grasses and study how it grew, but my mom disagreed. She said the flowers were old fashioned; she planned a vegetable garden in that spot. We had just moved to a new house, and the next year she did indeed put in a vegetable garden with pole peas and beans, radishes, carrots, zucchini, and an asparagus patch. I promptly began checking radishes every few days to see how the root developed into a round edible vegetable, but that’s another story. Suffice it to say my parents were not pleased to find the radish seedlings vanishing day by day. 

My love of that first iris flower morphed into a fascination with all things chlorophyllous, which led me into lichens, mosses, kelps, wildflowers, and eventually into Pacifica Iris. 

What’s your story?

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

In the Heart of Europe

 by Sylvain Ruaud


The fall of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing political upheaval had a major impact on the world of irises. We have already seen what happened in Germany. Now we will see what happened in the so-called People's Republics. The upheaval did not have the same consequences everywhere; but where it did, it gave birth to a new and not insignificant part of the iris world. This movement occurred in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Poland, Lithuania, Slovenia, and, to a lesser extent, Hungary and Romania. The other countries were only slightly affected, either because of their geographical and climatic situation or because of specific or historical circumstances.

The cultivation of irises in the Czech Republic began long before the 1990s. With meager options in genetic breeding stock, clever and ingenious people had created hybrids. Such was the case of Vojtech Smid, who in 1985 succeeded in Florence with 'Libon', a variety that, despite its success, was never registered, because at the time it would have been suspicious to be associated with an American organization. But also, from that time, the great botanist Milan Blazek tried to make daring crosses, in line with his genetic studies. He was particularly interested in Iris plicatas and late varieties. Due to being isolated in his own country, it took until 2013 to get his new varieties registered. They are still showing their age despite their aesthetic interest. This is the case of the pink 'Jarni Sen' (R. 2013). As soon as American varieties became widely available as breeding material, many Czech amateurs began to work with them. Many of them immediately proved their worth. Take the case of Pavel Nejedlo, who made a masterstroke with the cross 'Desert Echo' X ('Rancho Rose' x 'Sketch Me') and the three plicata varieties he kept from it: 'Moonlight Sketch' (1998), 'Spacelight Sketch' (1998), and 'Sunlight Sketch' (1998); or of Jiri Dudek, whose few hybrids were appreciated wherever they could be seen. Witness: 'Papapubren' (2003). 

Tall bearded iris 'Moonlight Sketch'
Photo by Christine Cosi

But the undisputed leader of Czech iridophilia is Zdenek Seidl. This man of conviction is interested in all classifications of irises. In 30 years of activity, he has become famous and his varieties have won awards wherever they have been in competition, be it in Munich, Florence, or Paris. From his first entries, whether the yellows 'Pozdni Leto' (1998) and 'Zlatohlavek' (1998) or the black 'Bratislavska Noc' (1996), experts immediately recognized him as a remarkable breeder. As the years passed, his talent has only grown. 'Nad Oblaky' (2019) triumphed in Paris this year, and 'Chachar' (2013) preceded 'Nad Oblacky' in 2017, before winning in Florence the following year. Note his intermediate bearded irises, which are characterized by their small size, well within the limits and appearance of the category.
Tall bearded iris 'Chahar'
Photo by Stephane Bolvin

In neighboring Slovakia, Ladislav Muska is the champion of change after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He is the epitome of a knowledgeable amateur. Like many hybridizers from Eastern Europe, he too started with a small pool of genetic stock for breeding. The available gene pool increased as more modern iris hybrids began to be exchanged, and little by little he was able to obtain the best American iris germplasm. His production was important and he even managed to publish a small handmade catalogue which he distributed to all his acquaintances in Europe and the United States, so that his varieties were spread everywhere. Not all of these irises are masterpieces, but many deserve to be in the finest collections. Especially his rich plicatas - 'Dreaming Clown' (1999) is the most famous and has even been used in breeding by Keith Keppel. Another notable introduction by Muska is the mauve 'Elegaball' (1999) which won the Moscow competition in 2003. 

Tall bearded iris 'Elegaball'
Photo by Sylvain Ruaud 

The successor of Ladislav Muska is Anton Mego. This discreet man continues to offer the world excellent varieties, both in terms of modernity and elegance of appearance and originality of colour. It has been a little over 20 years since his name first appeared in the iris world and there is hardly a year that has not been a revelation. The first shock was 'Slovak Prince' (2003) with its finely hemmed gold petals. It was an instant success in the USA, where in 2009 it won the highest possible award for a tall bearded non-American iris, the Wister Medal. 'Clotho's Web' (2010) won Third Prize in the 2015 Franciris® competition. Bratislavan Prince' (2010) came in first in the 2015 Moscow International TB (Tall Bearded) Iris Competition. 'Horske Oko' (2015) is arguably the first 'pansy-flowered' iris, and 'The Majestic' (2017) is a milestone in modern, exotic colouring reminiscent of aril irises. There is no doubt that Anton Mego can still be counted on to renew iridophilia. 

Tall bearded iris 'Slovak Prince'
Photo by Heather Haley

Tall bearded iris 'Clothos Web'
Photo by Christine Cosi

Tall Bearded iris 'Horske Oko'
Photo by Christine Cosi

Tall bearded iris 'The Majestic'
Photo by Christine Cosi

Further south, in Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia, is the home of Izidor Golob, who combines his hybridizing skills with a cheerful personality. He did not wait for political turmoil to take an interest in irises, registering and introducing his first unusual-for-the-time 'Mojka', an apricot iris, in 1978, followed by a series of rather unpretentious but successful cultivars, such as 'Majski Dotik' (2009), whose pedigree includes a pleasant white variety bred by the aforementioned Czech Milan Blazek.

Tall bearded iris 'Majski Dotik'
Photo by Sylvain Ruaud

One does not necessarily imagine that irises are available in Lithuania—but they are. Thanks go to Laimonis Zakis, a talented hybridizer who has been working on this plant since 2006, after a trip to Florence, but who refuses to register his varieties, which unfortunately keeps him on the fringes of the rest of the iris world. Many of his varieties would deserve international distribution, but this is out of the question as long as they remain semi-clandestine. The flower of 'Abavas Perle' (circa 2010) gives an idea of his production.

The main part of this Eastern European survey is Poland. It is the largest and most populous country and the one where iris cultivation has expanded the most. In truth, hybridizers are not particularly numerous there, but they appeared at the end of the Soviet bloc and have been renewed regularly since that time. One of the very first was Lech Komarnicki. An interesting and uncommon character, this former dramatic artist became interested in irises as soon as he left the stage and retired to his property in western Poland. He began by hybridizing tall bearded irises -- 'Poranna Mgielka' (2010) is an example of his work --  but he had many misadventures with them due to the harsh and humid climate of his region. He has preferred working on Siberian irises and interspecific crosses.

Tall bearded iris 'Poranna Mgielka'
Photo by Lech Komarnicki

He was followed by Zbigniew Kilimnik, Henryk Polaszek, and, more recently, Józef Koncewicz and, above all, Jerzy Wożniak. The last named had a brilliant but short career.  He was considered the most skilled hybridizer in his country, and his reputation spread far beyond Eastern Europe to Western Europe. But he soon disappeared (reorientation? death?). Actually, the only truly active and productive hybridizer left is Robert Piątek. This fifty-year-old water and forestry official is now one of the most renowned European hybridizers. He works in all categories of bearded irises, but with a preference for tall bearded irises; and every year he graces us with at least half a dozen new varieties. These flowers began to spread all over the world and he entered them in various competitions: Florence, Paris, Munich . . .  . He chooses names with Anglo-Saxon connotations to make them more accessible than if they had strictly Polish names. He addresses all flower patterns, as most hybridizers do today. Sticking to a few lines is no longer necessary because of the possibilities offered by crossing modern varieties. However, he has a special affection for pastel colors and plicatas of all kinds.

Before we leave Poland, let's greet Kat Zalewska, who is slowly making a place for herself in an area where women are not so numerous. The magnificent rose 'Axis Mundi' (2018) shows, if not the centre of the world, at least a real emerging talent.

Tall bearded iris 'Axis Mundi'
Photo by Kat Zalewska

Eastern Europe continues to open up to iris growing. Romania could be the next area of expansion, as well as Hungary. We should be talking seriously about this in a year or two. But already this part of the world has become a major focus for this area of horticulture.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Preparing Beardless Iris Beds at Dry Creek Garden

by Jeff Bennett

Overview of iris plantings at Dry Creek Garden 
Image (C) 2023 Maxar Technologies | Google Earth

Dry Creek Garden is located in Union City, California and is part of the East Bay Regional Park District. Iris plantings were established for the 2019 American Iris Society National Convention and are maintained by park gardener Jeff Bennett.

In 2021, I decided I wanted to improve our Louisiana iris beds at Dry Creek Garden so that they would hold more moisture and require less physical watering. At the same time, I wanted to try my hand at growing Japanese irises. California is known as a great location for growing bearded irises and of course Pacific Coast native irises and their hybrids, but not so much for the beardless classes (including Louisiana, Siberian, Japanese, and Pseudata hybrids). In this blog post, I will walk you through processes I used to prepare beds in this extremely drought-affected area of the country.

Before preparing beds for new irises, be sure to orders are placed well ahead of planting time to have the greatest choice of varieties. I do this in January and February, when the growers and hybridizers usually update availability and open up their websites for ordering. The irises you order won’t be ship until September, so you have plenty of time to plan and prepare the beds. 

For the new Louisiana iris bed, I dug 10 to 12-inches deep and created a  trench 5 x 30 feet - with the occasional help of Mount Diablo Iris Society or local community volunteers and sometimes other park staff. (Sorry, to readers in every other country in the world. I never quite learned the metric system.) We mounded up all the clay-like, native soil in the pathway next to the bed so it could be returned to the trench later. 

Excavated trench with a mound of removed soil and concrete edging piled to right.
All photos by Jeff Bennett

Next, we lined this trench with weed block to prevent bindweed from coming through very easily. On top of the weed block, we added a layer of 6-mil plastic (is mil metric?). The plastic will prevent the water in the bed from soaking all the way through to China. Once the bed was lined with plastic, we started refilling it with soil in the adjacent mound. We added about four inches of straight compost and then top this with about four inches of the native clay, trying to mix this together as we went. This was followed with another two to three inches of compost and another two to three inches of soil, again mixing it up. Finally, we added a final layer of two to three inches of compost on top. To finish the edges, we used recycled cement from my home patio (which had been removed and hauled here the year before). The cement edging helped conceal plastic from view and gave the bed a finished appearance. Since this area had already housed bearded irises before, I returned the same drip lines onto the top of the bed. The half-inch drip lines have emitters every foot and we planted a Louisiana iris every three feet on each side of the bed using the emitters as a guide. 

Completed and planted Louisiana iris bed.

When I receive any iris orders, I always pot up rhizomes to give them a good start (see my post "Get That Order Planted" from last summer). The bed was completed in January 2022 and potted Louisianas were transplanted from their pots directly into the new bed then. Since they like water and we weren't getting ANY rain, I used a hose to give the bed its first flood soak to settle them in. Now it was their turn to do their work!

Louisiana irises thriving in new bed.

After planting the Louisianas into the new ground bedalphabetically by name of courseI turned my attention to getting the Japanese irises transplanted into their new water-holding containers. Unlike Louisiana irises, Japanese irises CANNOT dry out. Their roots must remain moist at all times. For them, I decided to use large metal water troughs, typically used for livestock. I got the watering troughs at a local hardware store, but they can also be purchased from farm supply stores. Livestock-watering troughs are galvanized metal and have no drain holes anywhere.

New livestock-watering troughs for Japanese irises.

I first put about three inches of wood chips on the bottom to make a water reservoir below the soil. I then bought a rhododendron soil mixture to provide the acidic pH Japanese irises prefer. I layered this soil with compost to the top of the tubs, about three inches each of rhododendron mix and compost, mixing these together while filling the troughs. Japanese irises like their roots to be wet but the rhizomes need to be above the water table to grow well. To create this effect, I measured down from the top of the tubs five inches and drilled ¼-inch holes in the metal to allow excess water from rain or irrigation to escape. I drilled eight holes in each container, two on each side of the oval-ended tubs. They were now ready to plant. I have nine tubs -  seven for Japanese, one for Pseudatas/Species-X, and the last one for Siberians. For a quicker visual effect, in each tub, I planted seven to eight varieties. Since the irises were growing in pots, I just transplanted them alphabetically to the tubs (rootball and all). It was now February 16, 2022.

Filling livestock troughs with layers of rhododendron soil and compost.

Newly planted beardless irises in livestock troughs.

Everything started growing immediately as it was the season to do so. By early April, the Louisianas were showing good growth and the first flower opened on April 27, less than 100 days after the plant was transplanted into the ground.

Louisiana iris 'Eyes Wide Open' (Heather Pryor, 2016) blooming approximately
100 days after transplanting into the new trenched bed.

The Japanese irises were looking great by early May and the first Japanese bloomed on May 19, just in time for our scheduled Japanese iris judges' training on May 20. 

Japanese iris 'Devi Banri' (Toyokazu Ichie 1989) blooming in May 2022 after being transplanted
into livestock troughs in February.

None of the Siberians bloomed during their first year in the tub, but they put on lots of increase and we are looking forward to them blooming this year. I reiterate that we are growing them the same way as the Japanese irises with wettish roots and rhizomes above a water reservoir. 

This year we created another bed like the Louisiana bed, for the Japanese irises. These will be planted very soon, now that the California storms have passed and we can dig in the soil again. I am adding peat moss to this bed for acidity along with all the compost. We're hoping to grow Japanese irises successfully in our specially-prepared ground beds in this otherwise Mediterranean climate (no natural summer rainfall)!

We had also begun preparing a Japanese iris bed in the same fashion in the heart of the garden down near the creek last fall. Just as we were about to add peat moss to this bed before planting, the atmospheric river of storms hit California starting on December 31, 2022. THANKFULLY, we had not planted the bed yet by transplanting the Japanese irises from their pots into the ground as this area ended up getting flooded and under three feet of water, devastating this part of the garden. Flooding deposited 20-24 inches of silt there and strong winds toppled six mature trees nearby. We are now cleaning up the garden from this storm. In about six months, we hope to re-open the damaged area to the public (~Fall 2023). The damage was bad! Thankfully, the iris area on the hill was not harmed by the flooding. HORRAY!