Tag Archives: bearded iris

Tikorangi Notes: a folk art garden, bearded irises, macadamia nuts and a bit of advice

Pat and Brian’s garden 

Either Pat or Brian – or both – like a bit of symmetry in places

I called in to see a local friend and as we walked around her garden, I figured that what she creates is a form of folk art. Hers is a heavily ornamented and decorated garden and regular readers will know that this is not my style at all. But I find Pat’s creative instincts charming in context. Many of her garden pieces have a story to them and they all have meaning for her. She doesn’t just buy something and place it in the garden. She repurposes, restyles and recycles items that others would dump and they bring both her and her husband a great deal of pleasure.

Rusty old cream cans repurposed to grow air plants 

Washing machine bowls reused as strawberry planters

Pat does not know the names of any of her plants and she has no botanical curiosity. But, and it is a big but, she has an eye for good plants and she has always been willing to buy plants that take her fancy. While she may not know the names, there are some interesting plants and a wide variety within her garden.

Above all, I think I like her garden because there is personal joy in it for both her and Brian. It is not a show garden but they keep it very tidy indeed because that is how they like it. I have been into a few gardens in my time that I would describe as joyless places, done for show and admiration from others, but more like a chore for the owners than a source of personal delight. Give me Pat’s folk art instead any day.

My blue-purple bearded irises are all in bloom. We are not bearded iris territory – they are better in drier climates with hotter summers than we get – and it is not easy for me to find good places for them. I was given a number of excellent named varieties several years ago but I see I only have one variety left and I have lost the name of it. It has a large flower and is very pretty, arguably much more so than the smaller flowered, robust one that forms most of my patch. But that is looking at the blooms as specimen flowers. Grown as a bed of several square metres, the plain Jane, utility variety is a way better performer. The big powder blue needs staking or it starts to lean and then the blooms get damaged very quickly. There is a lesson there if you are buying bearded irises. If you want to grow them as single specimens and are willing to stake and support them, then go for the big flowers if that is what appeals to you. If you want to do a bed of pretty colour, choose smaller flowered varieties that can stand up straight on their own.

Decorative pink racemes of macadamia flowers. The white flowered forms we have are nowhere near as eyecatching. 

Our macadamia trees are flowering and the nuts are dropping. There are reasons why these nuts are expensive to buy and it is to do with the cracking of them, I am sure. Astonishingly, the rats can bore into the rock-hard shells but it takes careful positioning and a sharp hammer blow for humans. We have tried a range of different macadamia nut crackers but they are tedious to use when you have to load the nuts one at a time and then separate them from their shells.

A simple mat but a gamechanger when it comes to cracking macadamia nuts

I love social media. It makes my world larger, as I say. It was Twitter that delivered me a recommendation last week that is a game-changer when it comes to cracking macadamia nuts. Get one of the doormats with round holes in it, was the advice. We just happen to have what I assume is calf matting that serves the same purpose – holding the nuts in place so they don’t skitter away or worse – fly into windows and break them (this has happened before). Now, we can crack up to 100 nuts at a time and have them stay in place. True, it takes 100 hammer blows to crack 100 nuts but then lift the mat, remove the kernels and sweep away the shells and Bob’s your uncle. I am picking up the falling macadamia nuts with a great deal more enthusiasm.

Finally, two pieces of seasonal advice. In New Zealand, the weeding round right now (that you may or may not be doing but we certainly are) is arguably the most important one of the year. The weeds are romping away but not many are setting seed yet. If you can get them out now – right now – you will reduce future weeding. And get mulch onto any bare soil before it really starts to dry out. That will also contribute in a major way to stopping more weeds from germinating.

We don’t clip many plants but this little camellia collection makes a focal point at our entry

If you are pruning or clipping, keep a close eye out for birds’ nests. Our feathered friends go to a huge amount of trouble building nests and while I may moan about the sparrows and blackbirds, there is something very sad about committing the ornithological equivalent of infanticide. We are currently doing the annual clip and shape on the camellias and michelias that we like to keep as defined forms. Hedges were done last month.

Mine No Yuki received her annual trim this week

Irises – named for the Greek goddess of rainbows

Louisiana iris are flowering by our stream

Louisiana iris are flowering by our stream

I am enjoying the irises enormously this season. This week we have three main types in flower – the Sibericans, bearded irises and the Louisanas.

Botanically Iridaceae, they are more romantically named for Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow. It is a big family – there are maybe 300 different species and they are grouped in different botanical sections. Then there are thousands upon thousands of different hybrids, for irises have been bred extensively for hundreds of years. Some of those hybrids are what I would describe – politely, if disparagingly – as ‘novelties’. This is more evident in the bearded iris class than anywhere else but I will draw veil of silence beyond saying that not all hybrids are improvements.

'Crowned Heads'

‘Crowned Heads’

We are not the best bearded iris territory here. These ones grow from rhizomes that sit on top of the soil and they tend to prefer free draining, sandy soils (great if you live on the coast though you may have to stake the flower spikes). They like their rhizomes baked in the sun and they are fine with winter frosts but are not so at home in high rainfall, high humidity climates. They are also better without a whole lot of other foliage flopping over their rhizomes, which tends to happen in perennial beds.

Yes that is a black iris, called 'Anvil of Darkness' no less, and an old yellow variety to the right

Yes that is a black iris, called ‘Anvil of Darkness’, and an old yellow variety to the right

The modern hybrids are often touchier than the old toughies. I was delighted by the iris fields of nursery plantings I saw last spring (www.theirisboutique.co.nz) and tramped up and down looking at them all. The owner, Coleen Peri, has given me a few new ones to try here. Bless her, she avoided the weird colour mixes, splashes and splotches that I personally dislike. The very dark ones are interesting but are not going to be easy to place in the garden so that they stand out. There are some exquisite blues available but my most reliable standby is still an old pure yellow one which dates back to Mark’s mother. It is very forgiving and tolerant.

One of the easiest of all iris to grow, as long as you have heavy or damp soil - Iris sibirica

One of the easiest of all iris to grow, as long as you have heavy or damp soil – Iris sibirica

The easiest of all irises to grow must be the Siberian iris or I. sibirica. As its name suggests, it is fully hardy but it does want to grow in a heavier soil which doesn’t dry out during the growing season. It is dormant in winter, so winter dry won’t matter – though few of us have dry winters in this neck of the woods. It has the classic form with three upright and three falling petals and comes mostly in gorgeous shades of blue. Because it is clump forming (it has a fibrous root system as opposed to many irises which are either bulbs or rhizomes), it can be planted and left for many years. I get a lot of pleasure from the border where I have combined it with the big hairy-leafed Bergenia ciliata. I like the contrast between the foliages and they co-exist happily together.

The Louisiana irises are in flower down by our stream. These ones hail from the bogs and swamps of Louisiana and are easy to grow in clumps on the margins of water, although they can also be grown in heavy soils. These are plant and leave types, too. The lovely Japanese Higo irises will not come into flower for another few weeks yet. We are still working on establishing these here and they appear to be at their best immediately by water. We want lots of them blooming into December because we love their colours and ethereal form.

Moraea villosa or the peacock iris

Moraea villosa or the peacock iris

Then there are the Dutch iris (often sold widely and cheaply as corms in autumn). They looked out of place in the rockery, vulgar even, so I moved them into a perennial border where they flowered away in early spring and looked much better. Dutch iris are not native to Holland. It is just the Dutch who did the breeding to get these popular forms for the floristry and garden markets. The dwarf (ground-hugging) Iris cristata from USA look much more appropriate in the rockery and have that classic three up, three down petal formation so often associated with the iris family. The peacock iris (moraea) species which grow from corms, also fit in well with the rockery and different species flower through autumn, winter and spring though many people would not even pick some as irises.

It seems a general rule that if the iris grows from rhizomes or bulbs, it needs excellent drainage and will do better in lighter soils and full sun. If it has a clumping, fibrous root system, it leans more to heavy soils and damper conditions. One size does not fit all when it comes to the large iris family.

A field of irises being grown commercially

A field of irises being grown commercially

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Dividing bearded irises: step-by-step with Abbie and Mark Jury

A step by step guide by Abbie and Mark Jury first published in the Taranaki Daily News and reproduced here with permission as a PDF.

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