New Year, New Garden and My Perennial Resolution (Bearded Iris Division)

Resolved (year after year, but this year I’m really going to do it): make the garden smarter – not necessarily smaller, but easier to care for – and more stylishly built around shrubs and grasses instead of herbaceous perennials.

For starters, I’m cutting way back on the bearded iris. Not ripping it out root and branch

blue iris blue hosta

The fragrant, impervious-to-snails-so-their-leaves-look-lovely-all-summer blue ones in the blue border are staying, but

 bearded iris and hesperis

the not-fragrant purple ones, whose moment of glory is even briefer than that of the hesperis in the background, after which their snail ravaged leaves look worse and worse until put out of their misery, are destined for removal.

I have never purchased a bearded iris. The blue and the purple were, like the yellow and paler blue ones I don’t happen to have photos of, gifts from other gardeners with rhizomes to spare. Thus the paradox of bearded iris: they’re finicky – insistent on proper placement, acid soil and good drainage, frequently beset by borers – and yet they multiply almost as aggressively as cannas and dahlias.

If you have any success at all, you find yourself having to divide them what seems like every other minute. Once every three years is the standard advice, although I confess once every four has been closer to my reality.

But once every four still leaves us with only two of full gratification; the flower show is less spectacular the first spring after division and by the fourth it’s starting to fall off. Even when the show is great, it doesn’t go on for long. And if I remember to change the water and keep it out of the sun, a well-budded stem lives as long in the vase as it does on the plant, looking all the more beautiful for being viewed close up.

So what with this and what with that, I’m thinking bearded iris belong in the cutting garden, not the perennial border (a useful thought, now that perennial borders are on their way out of our garden design).

Or maybe where these plants mostly belong is in fantasyland, along with China roses, fabulously expensive rare narcissi and a conservatory full of lemon trees. I’ve whiled away many happy hours browsing in Iris catalogs , knowing there are thousands of flowers I have yet to see. (The American Iris society conducts a yearly poll of members’ favorite tall bearded iris and still can’t get it down farther than the top 100.) I want them all while wanting no more…

At least no more tall bearded ones. The Japanese (ensata) types have me firmly in their grasp and only the fact that we have no place damp enough to grow them well keeps me from going on an acquisitional bender, even though their bloom season is almost obscenely short and they are, like tree peonies, flowers of about an hour in hot weather or heavy rain.

I don’t have photos of my one clump and I can’t find any in Flicker’s vast holdings that really convey their charm – the wide flat flowers on tall narrow plants defy the camera. Fortunately, art comes to the rescue, in this case via the Floral Calendar of Japan, by Shodo Kawarazaki (1889-1973), courtesy Dr. Ross Walker’s extensive (and wonderful!) Ohmi Gallery.

Kawarazaki_Shodo-Floral_Calander_of_Japan ohmi gallery

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  • Susan Scheid Said,

    And unlike the rest of us, I have this sneaking feeling that you actually KEEP your New Year’s resolutions. Such happy thoughts, in any case, to think of gardens and of flowers at this time of year. Thank you!

    Ha! Shows what YOU know… afraid as a keeper of resolutions I get about a D minus. But this is definitely the time of year to think about flowers and gardens; in mid-winter they’re always perfect and what could be happier than that?

  • Pam O Said,

    The Japanese iris does merit room in a garden, if you can keep it going – the flower petals somehow seem to float in the air. I’ve found that the deer, however, love the buds! I now have a clump I bought at White Flower Farm in my fenced garden area and am hoping to get more of a chance to enjoy the fully-opened blooms.

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