I put together these iris care tips for the average homeowner because I’ve found that so many people love iris. Tall, bearded iris, Dutch iris, you name it…we can all learn some iris care tips so that these gorgeous plants flourish for many years to come!
Iris Care Tips
I wasn’t much into German bearded iris until I moved to Virginia. In fact, the only iris I knew were the ones in my father-in-law’s garden. I was enchanted by the flowers, which smelled like grape soda pop, but I didn’t know anyone else on Long Island who grew bearded iris.
When I moved to Virginia, all that changed. Here in the Piedmont area of Virginia, iris grow like weeds! You can drive down any country lane in the county and see great big patches of iris waving their sword-like foliage and gorgeous flowers along the ditches and farm embankments, or planted alongside a barn or the foundation of a house. No home, no matter how humble, seem to be without these garden kings.
Iris care is fairly simple once you get the hang of them. Caring for iris differs from caring for other flowers right from the planting. Unlike other flowers, bulbs or rhizomes, iris need their rhizomes (the fleshy root-like part that you plant) exposed near the soil surface. Bury them too deep, and they’ll either rot or sulk on you.
The first step when planting German bearded iris as shown in these pictures is to choose good varieties. There are about as many colors among iris as there are in the rainbow. The name “iris” actually comes from the goddess of the rainbow in Greek mythology, and it’s an appropriate name for these flowers.
Older varieties, I have found, are hardier, less expensive, and spread more easily. The best iris are those you get from a friend; the purple on in the photo on the right is descended from my friend Cynthia’s garden. Walking around my own garden, I can point to plants from Patty’s garden, Cynthia’s garden, Joan’s garden, Pat’s garden and Jack’s garden. I’ve only purchased two out of my extensive collection of iris, and some day, I hope to share some rhizomes with friends who have so graciously gifted me with iris.
Iris Care: Site Selection
Choose a bright, sunny spot with well-drained soil. Iris need full sunlight, or six or more hours of direct sunshine each day.
They really hate having their rhizomes stay wet all the time, so soil that dries out is just fine for your iris. I put a thin layer of mulch over mine, but most books (and experts) say not to mulch iris. If you add mulch, make sure it’s not a thick layer over your iris plants.
Once you have chosen the site for your iris, dig a shallow trench and lay the rhizome down into the trench. Cover it with a fine layer of soil. You should still see the “skin” of the rhizome peeking through the soil crust.
Your First Year with a New Iris
After planting your iris, the first year may be a bit of a disappointment. The foliage emerges and you may or may not get a flower the first year. Be patient. It may take a year or two for your iris to become established in the garden.
The picture below shows my iris collection in one part of my garden. The iris in this patch were planted just about three years ago. Some were moved there last year from other parts of the garden where iris needed to be divided. You can see how the plants grow quickly once they establish their roots.
My Iris Collection
Iris Care: Fall Tips
When your iris plants finish blooming, the foliage remains green until the frost in the fall. Some foliage may die during the summer, especially if you live in a very hot climate. Leaves will turn brown and crispy, like twine, and shrivel up. These can be GENTLY picked off or left until fall garden clean up.
During the fall, rake up all the dead iris leaves and discard them. This prevent the iris root borer and other insects from finding a comfortable, convenient place to hide during the winter months.
When to Divide Iris
If your iris become too crowded over time, they may stop blooming. You can safely transplant and move them before they bloom and well after, but not during bloom time. The best time is summer through fall, but around here, friends think nothing of bringing a bucket and a spade into the garden to dig up a few iris for a lucky gardening friend who drops by.
When dividing iris, make sure that each rhizome (root part) has a fan of leaves with at least four to five leaves. Cut the leaves down straight across to about three-four inches. This is essential when replanting iris. Use the newer, younger rhizomes you can find from your parent plants.
More Iris Care Tips
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Happy gardening! Keep growing!
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.