I can’t remember when a bearded iris flower first caught my eye. As a young gardener, I had been a rose girl. Roses are showy, fragrant, the obvious choice for a twentysomething gardener. Roses are the brash young girls of the garden, basking in their new-found attractiveness, thoughtless with their thorns. I grew gorgeous roses, those vain little fertilizer guzzlers. I asked my landlord if I could plant a few in an abandoned little patch behind my illegal apartment in a bad part of town. I fussed over them endlessly, pruning, feeding, and, of course, photographing. It was before I decided on my “do no harm” philosophy of no chemicals, so I sprayed them with noxious killer juice regularly, to keep them from shedding all their leaves in a fit of black spot pique. They often broke my heart.
Somewhere along the way, as I got older, I found iris. And, although I had long admired them, and I had moved into a house with plenty of room for them and delicious southern exposure, I hadn’t made any significant investment in them past taking a stray gifted rhizome. Then, a few years ago, I decided to reach out to gardeners in my neighborhood who might have a rhizome or two to spare. I was rewarded with many beautiful, healthy, chunky rhizomes that grew into tall, lavender flowers and hardy little yellow ones with a little maroon at the core. I bought a few more at the garden center and a handful online, then made the dumb mistake of planting my choicest ones in a damp, shady plot on the west side of my house where moss is very happy. Still, they did their best. They stretched their graceful necks to catch more sun. Their patience with me warmed my heart.
Last summer, I decided I would give in to all my iris fantasies. I made a list. If I could buy every iris I could imagine owning, how much could that possibly cost? I let my imagination run wild… blues and reds and bi-colors, tall, with a variety of blooming times. When I was done with my list I was surprised that, although it amounted to more than anyone should spend on flowers, it wasn’t beyond my reach. I am not usually a super-organized kind of person, but somehow this iris project demanded it. I created a spreadsheet and listed out my purchases by color, as well as whether the flower bloomed in the early, mid or late part of the season. You can see my 2012 list here.
I spent the fall in a heady iris intoxication, watching the big boxes come in from Schreiners Iris Garden and Vermont Wildflower Farm and American Meadows. I also trolled Etsy, Ebay and Craigslist for hobby growers selling divided rhizomes for cheap. I got in that game a little too late in the fall so I missed out on those, but I made a note to try again this summer after bloom season is done.
One thing I noticed right away is that Schreiners sent the most luscious, gigantic rhizomes I’d ever seen in my life. They were fat and already growing little side shoots… just amazing. And (am I weird?)… they smelled like earthy happiness.
I spent many weekends building 4 raised beds from wonderful old reclaimed brick I found on Craigslist and carted from all over my area. (I’m in Northern NJ, and I traveled from Westchester to Central Jersey to get it). I filled the beds with organic top soil and compost. Pictures to follow. (My goal is to chronicle the iris garden from early spring until fall).
I created one “red white and blue” bed, one “yellow and purple and blacks” bed and another bed of assorted ones that I’d dug up and divided or gotten from my mom’s garden. (That woman can grow a flower on a patch of concrete. I wish I knew how she does it. Her irises are effortlessly huge and healthy). On the side of the house I put in all my irises that defied classification… my Revere and Moonlit Water (the mossy side, but further forward, facing south where there is more sun). I hope there is enough light. If not, they may need to be put in a new home this fall.
So this portion of this site will be dedicated to charting the iris project’s progress. I don’t promise consistency or great gardening wisdom, but I do promise one woman’s journey in giving the earth (and its iris) a little love.
Read the next installment… the first day in the spring garden.
Also (shameless and totally unrelated plug), read about my forthcoming book here.
Thank you lots for reading and being a fellow tall bearded iris enthusiast!