Tuesday, July 13, 2021 9:29 AM
The ups and downs of the early season, including the cold spell during early planting, a heat wave with accompanying prolonged dry spell, and a plague of flea beetles, didn’t faze the perennials, which have never been more beautiful. In my case, that included some handsome and prolific old-fashioned purple bearded iris. Entirely too prolific, as it turns out. In just a few years they managed to crowd out everything around them, so that what was planned as a mixed perennial border instead became a decided monoculture as the iris engulfed their companion day lilies and columbines. While lovely to look at for a period of three weeks or so, once the iris finished blooming, there was nothing left to look at except lots of spear-shaped leaves.
Which is why, on one of the most miserably hot days thus far, I began digging out most of the clumps of overgrown iris
to pass on to friends and relatives who’d expressed an interest in them. It wreaked havoc in the garden, as along with the iris I dug up several dozen spring bulbs that would need replanting, but time was a factor — my favorite local nursery was closing for the season and I wanted to pick up some fresh perennials and annuals to replace the dormant iris and put some bloom back into our lives. The digging wasn’t as difficult as I’d feared, as the shallowly planted rhizomes are easy enough to get under with the spade, and soon the grass was covered with the corpses of the giants. I went through them all, cutting the fans back to about eight inches and separating the rhizomes, discarding any bits that looked unhealthy (few in number, I was gratified to note) and then dividing them among the waiting recycled nursery pots that I’d prepared by placing a few inches of mixed compost and peat in their bottoms. After packing the transplants in the pots I sprinkled more compost on top of the rhizomes, watered them lightly, and set them in the heavy shade of some softwoods to await their new owners.
When I turned back to view the plundered garden it was pretty much a hot mess — weirdly placed clumps of newly liberated day lilies, bee balm and rudbeckia, none of which would be in bloom for a few weeks, standing next to weed-fringed holes and stranded bulbs. I popped a few new foxglove plants into the holes, replacing the bulbs as I did so, and decided to wait before putting any iris back into the border, hoping the formerly crowded companions would take a deep breath and spread out a bit. I put some colorful annuals in front of them, as well as some larger-growing hostas, and hoped for the best.
So what’s the lesson to be learned here? I’m still sorting it out. With iris, there are a few ways to go. It seems as if they would do best in a bed all of their own, and if you have the space for a separate bed, this isn’t a bad way to go. You can put in different iris varieties, let them bloom, trim the stalks after the blooms finish and then plant some annuals in front of them, leaving the fans as green background. This would mean just going in and dividing the iris every few years, not a wholesale replanting. But I still prefer to try a mixed border and already have noted that most peonies bloom in perfect sync with the iris, as do Oriental poppies, the aforementioned columbines, and lupines and salvia. Sometime in the coming months I’ll regroup and choose a cool day to once again try to get it right, this time replanting the iris along with a few peonies, poppies, lupine and salvia, giving them all ample growing space, and giving me a few years before I have to get in there and once again cull the herd. I’ll tuck fall bulbs in among them for early bloom and perhaps a few Solomon’s seal and spring-blooming campanulas, some pulmonary and bleeding hearts. The later-blooming day lilies, rudbeckias and bee balm will have to go in the mix somewhere, but fortunately, I have a bit of time to figure it all out.
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