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Iris, Princess of the Garden

The Iris

Iris
Blue & White Iris

Iris Beverly Sills
Iris Beverly Sills

Iris Loop de Loop
Iris Loop de Loop

Her flowers are perhaps not as many, her bloom time is fairly short, but most people agree that the iris is truly royalty in the flower world. Atop a tall stalk, the six petals are a statement in grace and beauty.

And not only is she a classy act, the iris is not a prima donna in her needs. She needs a little bit of attention to perform her best, but who doesn't? And because she's so easy to grow and has those striking sword-like leaves spearing into the sky, she's an invaluable addition to garden design and visual texture.

Personally I wouldn't be without irises. Petal colours are so rich and varied, and there's even a variegated leaved one. They add so much to my overall garden design that I'm sure I have at least one variety planted within every 4 foot of garden space. And I keep adding more as I fall in love with newer colours and combinations.

Most people probably remember Granny's old purple-petalled irises. Since then, irises come in almost a rainbow of colours and sizes, from tall bearded (27"+) to miniature dwarf bearded (2-8"), Siberian irises and more. Breeders are developing new combinations of the upper petals (standards) contrasting with the lower petals (falls). And the rippled edges are also more pronounced these days. One new unnamed hybrid I saw was a striking burnt orange.

Cultivating Iris

Irises are easily grown from tubers called rhizomes, those knobby things you see poking out of the soil. You can either plant a fresh piece of rhizome or one with a fan of leaves (trim leaves down to 4" to reduce transplant shock). Just be sure the side with root nubs faces downwards shoved partway into the soil. Any diseased or soft bits go straight to the garbage, not the compost bin.

Using Alfalfa Fertiliser

I already have the soil ready, well turned over with a handful of 9-10-12 (or similar) along with 2 handfuls of alfalfa pellets. Alfalfa is new to many iris growers but comes highly recommended by the Canadian Iris Society. I purchase bulk alfalfa (horse) pellets (not the cubes) cheaply from my co-op as I have many irises to feed. On existing plants, I simply surround them with a thick alfalfa pellet mulch, which I immediately hose water. This makes the alfalfa unpalatable to rodents and pests.

What does the alfalfa do? There's no scientific testing to verify results, but if alfalfa is good for your horse, it does wonders for your irises. And roses. Alfalfa is loaded with vitamins, minerals and trace elements and quickly becomes available to plants. The following year, I noticed considerably taller, darker green leaves with no leaf spotting whatsoever. None. And more flower and side shoots than I imagined possible. Fall transplants established more quickly in alfalfa enriched soil. And because alfalfa is organic, you can't overuse or burn plants.

Some people also make a foliar alfalfa tea, but I just don't have the time. I simply add more alfalfa side dressing through the season. One thing I'm rigorous about is cutting off spent flower stalks. Unless you're breeding plants, it's a waste of plant energy.

Other than regular weeding and watering until the growing season ends, there's little else to do. I never thin or cut back foliage during the season as it weakens the plant too much. Some gardeners cut off the leaves after frost if they have iris borer problems. I don't, so I leave the leaves alone to act as it's own mulch, to which I also add shredded tree leaves against freeze-thaw cycles. Come spring, I clear away all the old debris and wait for royalty to hold court.

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