Growing The Bearded Iris

Bearded Iris is an easy to grow, striking, drought tolerant flower, an easily propogated perennial that comes in a rainbow of colors.

Irises come in a rainbow of colors - which is why they were named Iris, for the Greek goddess of rainbows. There are bearded iris, beardless iris, wild iris and hybrid iris. Over 200 species grow wild. There are thousands of hybrid varieties.

Almost all iris have at least 2 things in common - sword shaped leaves and a distinctive flower structure consisting of 3 upright petals called "standards" and 3 outer petals called "falls" which hang down from the base of the blossom. The "bearded" iris have a fuzzy, caterpillar looking "beard" resting on each of the falls.

The old fashioned iris, before people started experimenting with them, were beautiful blooming flowers that need little or no care. The newer selections, while they do have bigger and more blooms as well as very exotic colors, require much more care than the old fashioned, beautiful plants of our grandparent's day. They ARE spectacular looking, but they do require considerably more effort than the old varieties which you basically planted and left alone with no need for spraying, watering, or fertilizing.

Grown from fleshy roots called rhizomes, these perennials usually grow beautiful blossoms in the spring, with April and May being their most prolific months. There are also summer blooming irises as well as reblooming irises which, after blooming in the spring, will rebloom from midsummer through fall. With so many hybrid varieties available, it is possible to have different irises blooming from early spring through fall.

Good bearded iris are almost effortless to grow. For old fashioned iris, as well as some of the newer hybrids, make sure to plant the bulbs in an area with good drainage. Old fashioned iris will endure droughts easily - but they do not tolerate soggy soil. They actually prefer dry soil in summer. You may plant bearded iris in late winter, summer or fall. They grow best in the south, but some have been adapted for more northern climates.

With so many varieties of hybrids to choose from, it is best to check the directions or consult, if possible, a nurseryman in your area. The following instructions are general and should apply to most iris varieties. There are some hybrids, however, who do require different circumstances, more watering, fertilizing and care.

For ideal conditions, find a sunny, slightly elevated spot which drains water quickly. Loosen the soil to a depth of about 12 inches and work in some organic matter - compost, composed manure, sphagnum peat moss and/or shredded leaves. Rhizomes should be planted 12 to 15 inches apart, but DO NOT completely bury the rhizome. It is best if the top half of the rhizome shows at the top of the soil.

After pushing the soil firmly around the rhizome, water thoroughly. Do not cover the rhizome with mulch. The tops of the rhizome should be exposed to sunlight. After that, the "tried and true" irises get by on their own. It is not necessary to water them except when they are planted and during the period of active growth in the spring. Other than that, watering is optional. The plant may get brown tips on the foliage in the heat of August. If that is a problem for you, you can water them some, but it is not necessary since they adapt very well to hot, drought-like conditions.

When planted in fertile soil, they rarely need extra food. If you feel the need to feed them, just a small amount of organic, slow-release fertilizer, such as blood meal, bone meal or cottonseed meal sprinkled around the rhizomes after the flowers fade will be more than enough.

There may be an occasional problem with iris borers, which hollow out the rhizomes - although the older varieties were resistant to such pests. If you should encounter telltale signs of borers in early spring (such as water-soaked, streaky leaves or leaves with ragged edges near the base), cut off and destroy the affected leaves. Next, pull off and destroy all brown, shriveled leaves in late fall. These simple sanitation practices should control the iris borers.

When the rhizomes become hunched and crowded - usually after 3 or 4 years - divide the rhizome by gently lifting them from the ground and dividing them into sections, making sure each section has feeder roots and a fan of leaves.

The range of iris height and bloom size is amazing. The height of the standard bearded iris ranges from 3 inches to 40 inches with blooms 11/2 to 8 inches across. Colors range from snowy white to any conceivable color and shade, including yellow, orange, pink, red, lavender, purple, brown, to almost black. Often, the standard and the fall of the iris will be different colors.

The nearly indestructible yellow flag iris has bright yellow, brown-veined flowers (1-1/2 to 2 inches across.) This particular variety can be planted in wet places, such as beside ponds, and may be left untended as if it were growing wild. They thrive on neglect and moist soil.

The names of some of the easier to grow, care-free bearded iris include the white Winter Olympics, the purple and white Stepping Out, the gold Carolina Gold, the pink Vanity and the powder blue Victoria Falls.

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