Why can’t things be more like a Ronco Rotisserie? You know the kind. “Set it and forget it.” Simply set the timer, walk away, and hours later your masterpiece, in this case a chicken, is juicy and ready to eat. The garden equivalent for a weary gardener would be one where every plant in your garden is planted (the set it part) and it stays beautiful for decades without any more work from you (the forget it part).
It’s September and that’s where my mind is right now. I’m tired and ready for fall. And unlike the rotisserie, that expression certanly doesn’t apply to gardening, unless maybe you’re a yew or giant redwood. But September can’t pass without one more necessary task. Since I’ve put it off for too many years, it’s time to divide the bearded irises. If you’re new to irises, it’s also a great time to add a few of these beauties to your garden.
I’ve forgotten to do it these last few years, but there’s no longer any excuse for me not to get on it this month. The National Garden Bureau declared 2020 the Year of the Iris and now it just seems wrong to ignore them for the third year in a row. Did they know I was slacking? I get so busy with other things, that this simple task has been easy to overlook but so important to the health and longevity of bearded irises.
So why now? Two reasons: the bearded iris looked even more pitiful than last year and I need a diversion from the sense of loss and longing that’s set in now that my oldest has moved away college. Dividing the bearded irises is key to remedying one issue entirely, while the other will continue to sting indefinitely until I grow used to this new situation. So tending to the irises is more like a temporary balm. It’s a good one, just short-lived.
Bearded iris flowers for just two short weeks beginning around the third week in May, ending right as June rolls in. It’s such a short span but the beauty of the flower is well worth the wait and I often think that if it flowered endlessly all summer, how quickly I’d grow tired of the same thing every day. Last spring, the irises looked a little tired with fewer blooms and an all over weakness they didn’t have the previous year. This spring was even worse and I knew it was time to get serious or risk losing these beautiful plants. Bearded iris requires division every three to five years. By my estimate, I’m about six years past due.
In the bed in front of my family room windows, I planted two varieties of tall bearded iris, Wench and Concertina. My favorite, Wench, has outshined Concertina. Both bloomed well together the first few years then Concertina barely showed up this spring, producing very anemic flowers on weak, floppy plants. Wench seems to have a proclivity to thrive under adverse conditions which is a nicer way of saying I dropped the ball.
If there can be one downside to bearded iris, it’s the foliage once the plants are finished flowering. They tend to look rather scrappy and tattered. I’d usually get in there after flowering and clean things up, deadhead the Viette’s Little Suzy rudbeckia and Zagreb coreopsis, both tasks escaped my to-do list.
The rhizomes separated easily and there was little evidence of iris borers, small caterpillars that burrow into rhizomes to feed. The result is a mushy, foul-smelling rhizome that needs to be removed and discarded. I found just three rhizomes with these symptoms. The rest received haircuts so that only 4-5 inches of the leaf remained. The trim tells the plant to puts its energy into strengthening the rhizome as opposed to maintaining green leaves this late into summer.
Now that the bearded irises are separated and tucked in, I can move on to more pressing things. Like that stack of books that’s growing taller by the minute and the pile of laundry that just might walk right into the washing machine without any help from me. Some things must wait until the garden season winds down to receive the full attention they require. Until then, stay up wind and check out these links to reputable growers with excellent iris stock: White Flower Farm, Brecks, and Longfield Gardens.