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Bearded Irises: Jewels of the Perennial Garden

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Dwarf bearded iris ‘Hippie’. Photo from Schreiner’s Iris Gardens

Some perennials offer stunning flowers, others offer easy care.  Few, however, offer both of these traits to the extent of bearded irises. Bearded irises combine a sumptuous floral display, evergreen structural foliage and low maintenance in an easy-to-plant, easy-to-grow package. They’re an excellent long-term investment for north Texas gardeners and offer colors and sizes to fit any taste. Our specialty selection of bearded irises have just arrived, and just in time: here’s how to get the most from them in your garden.

Bearded irises are propagated by rhizome, which is the fleshy, root-like modified stem from which the leaves and roots emerge. The rhizomes will arrive dry, but don’t fear: they’re adapted to withstand this temporary dessication and will burst forth new growth soon after planting.

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This clump of healthy rhizomes is ready for division.

To begin, give your rhizomes a brief, hydrating soak in either plain water or a dilute solution of water and organic root stimulator. While this isn’t absolutely necessary, it helps gives them a little extra boost.

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This rhizome was divided from a clump.
Note fresh roots attached.

Some rhizomes will have dried roots attached; others will have very few. If you’re transplanting freshly dug divisions from a clump of bearded irises, your rhizome pieces will have fresh roots attached, and you’ll want to leave these in place.

Bearded irises require very little in the way of care, but they do require good drainage–planting the rhizomes too deeply or in heavy, waterlogged soil will likely lead to rot. For heavy clay soils common in our area, expanded shale is an excellent amendment to break up the soil and improve aeration and drainage. In addition, adding organic compost will provide valuable nutrients while improving soil structure.

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Add expanded shale and organic compost to improve the aeration and drainage of heavy native soils.

Carefully spread the roots around the planting space when you situation your rhizome. Note that with actively growing divisions, existing foliage has been cut back into a ‘fan’ shape to reduce transplant shock:

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Carefully spread the roots of your rhizome division before covering with soil.

Plant rhizomes just deeply enough to keep the rhizome at the surface of the soil–the top of it should be slightly visible when you’re finished. You may wish to anchor the rhizome with a sod staple after planting to help it keep upright until the roots are actively growing:

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Rhizomes should be just below the surface of the soil when planted. The top should just be visible.

Bearded irises will bloom best in full sun (at least 6 hours per day) and when given a light feeding twice per year. Once in late March before the April bloom season, and again after blooming.

During and after bloom, it’s a good idea to remove spent blooms from the stalks as new flowers emerge and to remove the spent bloom stalk when flowering ends. This will keep the plants tidy and keep growing resources to the foliage and rhizomes.

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Spent blooms, such as the one at left, should be removed as they are finished.

Division of bearded iris clumps is generally done every three to four years, depending on the vigor of the variety and how thickly the clumps are growing. Crowded rhizomes will gradually produce fewer blooms, so digging and dividing them periodically will encourage a better floral display.

Bearded irises are true powerhouse perennials, and with their stunning flowers and beautiful, gray-green sword-like foliage, they stand out in any garden. Given just basic care, they’ll continue to perform in your garden for years to come.

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