I probably shouldn't be writing about Irises this month.
With my clay soil,lousy drainage, and overly shaded yard, I'm
possibly the worst iris grower in
Campbell River. But, even though they bloom briefly, and spend
the summer growing increasingly tatty, I love them and can't
help adding more each year.
There are a few irises that I've had fairly good success
with (and if they do well in my garden, you know they'll do well
pretty much anywhere). The early dwarf irises are great. Many
people grow the dark purple, and you should be able to scrounge
a piece easily. This iris is a quick spreader,though not too
quick, and does all right with less sun and more winter damp
than other bearded irises. If you go to the local garden centres,
you'll find a good selection of dwarf early irises, including
a true sky blue, and a very pretty peach. Another plus with the
dwarf irises is that if they do get brown and slug-chewed through
the summer, their small leaves can be easily masked by growing
something like perennial geraniums or coreopsis close by.
The taller bearded irises are divided by fanciers into
subgroups such as intermediate, tall, and so on. They do all
take the same basic care. These irises do best in well-drained
soil, but they prefer rich soil to sand, and do need enough moisture.
The easiest to grow is the common, unimproved, blue flag (that's
what my Mum calls it, anyway). This is a medium lilac-y blue
and has a lovely smell that's not unlike grape koolade. It blooms
with the first roses and geraniums, and looks great with all
the soft pinks,yellows and whites of early summer. In my shady
backyard, I find it makes a great companion for blue, green and
gold hostas. I've thrown some yellow grass into the mix and it
looks terrific. (I've seen pictures of irises in an English garden
that have been thickly interplanted with nigella and allium,
and that's a super combination too.)
Most garden centres carry a full spectrum of the fancier
irises, from my favourite mahogany, to midnight black, to wedding
cake fantasies in pale pink and white. These irises are definitely
worth a try, but most of the improved ones, like roses, are lacking
in scent, and it's trial and error to find the varieties that
will really thrive in our conditions.
Most people stop about here when thinking of irises, but
there's still a wide range of other species to explore. There
are yellow flags, a tall iris often sold as a pond plant. This
one does really well in my back bed - dry all summer, soggy all
winter seems to suit it to perfection. Iris forestii seems to
enjoy these conditions too. I haven't tried Iris foetidissima
yet.It apparently has bright orange seeds that stay on until
fall. But somehow,I just can't bring myself to plant something
that's named for it's fetid smell!
Well, I'm running out of room, and I haven't even got to
the Japanese or Siberian Irises yet. (They are a key element
of much of my planting, so I'll have to save them for a future
column.) I hope you'll try a few new irises this year and do
try them in different areas. Each one seems to have it's own
preferences, and may surprise you.