Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Growing Irises Out East: Celebrating New Milestones

 by Heather and Alleah Haley

Heather's husband, Chris, once told her, "You can grow all of the irises you want if you can make money doing it." Four years after launching our backyard nursery operation, Heather is pleased to share, "We pulled it off!" Our multi-generational iris obsession produced a tiny net profit for the Broley Homestead at the end of 2023. Full disclosure: the effort yielded pennies per hour when all our time was fully accounted for. This is common for new farm enterprises, and we are pleased to celebrate profitability as a small business milestone. It gives us hope that maintaining an half-acre iris collection will be financially sustainable. 

In 2023 we took irises to our local farmers market for the first time.

The labels we use for potted irises in the spring are equally useful for bare-root rhizome sales in the fall

We continue to expand the number of community events and public plant sales we take irises to. Earlier this month, Alleah and Heather traveled to Laurel Hill, North Carolina, for an invited presentation to the Cottonland Garden Club. The presentation "Irises in the Garden: A Month-by-Month Calendar" was inspired by a question asked while Heather and Alleah volunteered at our local Cooperative Extension office. Another volunteer asked a deceptively simple question: "How do I care for my irises?" At the time, the best answer the mother-daughter duo could come up with was "It depends."

Alleah labeling bearded irises in July

Chris dividing beardless irises in September.

Irises are a relatively low-maintenance perennial, but they do require care. Our gardens are home to a curated collection of 1,200 named cultivars that span 15 of the 16 horticultural classifications recognized by the American Iris Society. What we do and when varies greatly depending on the quirks and preferences of each plant type. Having a knack for organization and creating educational materials, Heather crafted a region-specific, month-by-month calendar outlining the method to our madness. We have given this presentation several times to local libraries, and patrons say they loved it. Recently, Heather was invited to present the calendar program for our local AIS affiliate and the Cooperative Extension group that initially inspired the program. It will be an honor to finally share our best possible answer on a vast topic.

Volunteer work helps our business live its purpose: to preserve, support, and sustain. We thoroughly enjoy sharing our passion and love of irises with the public. Alleah, Chris, and Heather share personal commentary and stories about the plants, and customers seem to appreciate our insight. The following are some varietal notes about the top ten sellers for the Broley Homestead during 2023. 

'Dusky Challenger' (Schreiner, 1986)

In tenth place is a garden rockstar: 'Dusky Challenger'. The first time Heather entered an iris show, she brought a stem of this with her. The show was held in a mall; and while transporting her blue ribbon entry back to the car, several people wanted to buy the stalk. 

When we say this iris is a rockstar, we mean it! 'Dusky Challenger' won the American Dykes Medal in 1992. In 25 of the past 29 years, 'Dusky Challenger' was voted #1 as the favorite iris in Tall-bearded Iris Symposium voting. Alleah believes we could sell every rhizome of this iris we could grow; it's that good. 'Dusky Challenger', "probable child of the . . . famous 'Titan's Glory' (Schreiner '81), has all the outstanding qualities with more intense, deeper color saturation and even better, more highly refined form." [Perry Dyer, writing in the IRISES Bulletin No. 263 (October 1986)]. When she lived in California, Alleah routinely gave iris rhizomes to her coworkers. She rarely could convince folks to keep the irises name-labeled, but "the near-black one," be it 'Titan's Glory' or 'Dusky Challenger', increased so much with regular horse manure fertilizing that one recipient couple had it blooming all over their three-acre rural property in just a few years. 

'Bermuda Triangle' (Anna and David Cadd, 2000)

In ninth place in sales was 'Bermuda Triangle', a space-age border bearded (SA BB). While the general public tends to be somewhat reluctant to buy "novelty irises," 'Bermuda Triangle', with its horns at the ends of the beards, is a vigorous grower with a striking color pattern. It won an Award of Merit for border bearded irises from AIS judges in 2006. This award honors the top 1% of irises introduced during the previous three to five years. 

Broley Homestead is pleased to distribute this introduction of Alleah's close friends, Anna and David Cadd of Healdsburg, California, even more widely. 'Bermuda Triangle' increases well and thrives in the North Carolina climate. Although our peers on the East Coast often say that irises from the West Coast don't do well, this hasn't been our experience. It certainly isn't the case for this eye-catching median selection or many others purchased from or gifted by our West Coast friends.

Again and Again (Sterling Innerst, 1999)

In eighth place was reliable rebloomer (RE) 'Again and Again', a tall bearded (TB) iris. Our customers are really surprised when we tell them that some irises can bloom twice, both spring and fall; so reblooming is a strong selling feature. However, we like to share with customers that rebloom behavior requires both a genetic trait and favorable cultural conditions. When most irises are resting in the summer, a rebloomer is firing up for another round of bloom. Gardeners who provide nutrients and water to rebloomers in the summer are more likely to enjoy bloom again in the fall. 

'Stairway to Heaven(Lauer, 1993)

'Stairway to Heaven' placed seventh among our 2023 sales. This iris won the American  Dykes Medal in 2000. It tended to rebloom in California, mainly when grown under a nighttime security light, as Alleah did at her workplace. It isn't known to rebloom in North Carolina. One of Heather's friends planted it under the porch light at her back door, but this may not provide enough wattage to prompt rebloom. We can hardly wait to situate some West Coast rebloomers under a security light to see if we can get rebloom here.

'Sicilian Orange' (Michael Sutton, 2016)

Sixth place 'Sicilian Orange', also a TB, grabs public attention, whether in the garden or in a photograph accompanying the plant at an iris sale. The striking combination of deep orange and wine in this bitone is delightful. It won an Honorable Mention in 2018 and an Award of Merit in 2022, and is under consideration as an iris that deserves two (or more) growing spaces in our production field. We don’t have any pots of ‘Sicilian Orange’  available for 2024 because we sold every extra rhizome we had of this variety last fall. 

'Sharp Dressed Man' (Thomas Johnson, 2010)

'Sharp Dressed Man,' in fifth place, is a child of the 2010 American Dykes Medal winner 'Paul Black', and bears a similar but perhaps even more stunning red beard than that of its parent. It absolutely screams, "Look at me!" For those who appreciate irises that share names with song titles, this one is sure to make their list. This tall bearded iris forms impressive clumps with many increases in our production field and consistently produces bloom stalks we enjoy taking to spring iris shows. As you might expect, American Iris Society judges consistently cast votes for this one. 'Sharp Dressed Man' won the highest award specific to tall bearded irises, the John C. Wister medal, in 2016.

'Immortality' (Lloyd Zurbrigg, 1982)

Fourth place 'Immortality' (TB RE) is one of the most reliable rebloomers wherever we've seen it growing. Its hybridizer Lloyd Zurbrigg focused on breeding reblooming irises and 'Immortality' was one of his most successful introductions. Alleah recalls reading an account that 'Immortality' bloomed during five months one year in one garden. Our customers certainly picked a good one here! The pure-white self pattern coordinates well with other iris colors and patterns making it a wonderful addition to any iris collection.

'Gypsy Lord' (Keith Keppel 2006)

'Gypsy Lord,' was our third most frequently sold iris and is another striking American Dykes Medal winner, this time in 2015. Its red, white, and blue color combination has been a somewhat elusive goal of iris breeders, brought to fruition here by the highly honored hybridizer Keith Keppel. The red-orange beards against the white center and mostly blue falls quickly catch the attention of customers. Keith's creations won the American Iris Society's top award, the Dykes Medal, eight times over the period, 2004 - 2021. Except for 2021 when two Dykes Medals were awarded to make up for no awards at all during Covid year 2020, only one iris has been awarded the American Dykes Medal each year since 1927, and it was not given in several years for various reasons. 

'Carved Pumpkin' (George Sutton, 2012)

'Carved Pumpkin', an intermediate bearded (IB) iris, was our second highest seller. This iris increases well, so we had many pots and rhizomes to sell. Our cousin Wendy loves the color orange and, like the public, she is attracted to any iris featuring orange coloration. The color of iris blossoms is influenced by soil pH. Try increasing this by adding bone meal or decreasing pH by adding acid fertilizer such as azalea/camellia food to see which intensifies flower pigment.

'Titan's Glory' (Schreiner, 1981)

'Titan's Glory', another American Dykes Medal winner, this time in 1988, was our overall best seller in 2023. Like many of the Dykes winners, this tall bearded iris is a vigorous grower and produces many increases in our garden. The original Schreiner’s catalog described it as "a fantastically sumptuous silken Bishop’s purple self," and it is. 

We often wonder if Perry Dyer was correct in his assertion that 'Titan’s Glory' was one of the unknown parents of  'Dusky Challenger'. Genomic testing for irises is possible, and we know scientists in laboratories who could help. However, the price-per-sample is rather high and we would need to sell many more irises than we do now to absorb the cost.

For 2024, we continue trying new things and sharing the joy of irises. Heather spent the winter upgrading the Broley Homestead website, and Chris engineered new protective structures to transport plants to market. Alleah has been hard at work creating metal labels for guest irises at three gardens near us. All hard work, but each new milestone is cause for celebration.

Thank you to all who have helped us learn and grow. 

New website categories make navigation much easier  

Utility trailer upgrades help us get irises to market