Dividing an Iris Can Multiply a Memory…

I will always have a cluster of purple iris in my garden.  As far back as I can remember, there was always purple iris blooming in the springtime in my mother’s gardens and now it is true in mine. It’s one of those things in life that I haven’t stopped too much to think about. It’s kind of like looking back in your childhood and assuming everybody had a wool WWII army blanket in their car to keep them warm when traveling on cold winter nights (my dad’s from the war) or everybody ate spicy meat and grape jelly sandwiches.

Yesterday I dug up and divided my purple iris clusters. It was time. I found this spring that the flower heads were not as big, not as showy, and that the stems were falling over more easily than usual. As I dug, divided, and replanted I thought of my mother out in the garden in her housecoat early in the morning before the school bus came, picking me irises, wrapping the stems in a wet paper towel and then tin foil, so I could bring a bouquet to my teacher. I also thought of all the iris bouquets that traveled in our car to the cemetery on Memorial Day for Grandpa’s grave. I hope you grow iris in your garden, too.

Although there are more than 300 species of iris around the world, in my garden and in many others the bearded iris hybrid is the most popular. It can be as tall as a yard stick or as short as only a couple of inches; the flowers are notable for their six petals – the three that arch upward to form the center (the standards), and the three that cascade downward and also have the “beard” (the falls); aptly named for Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, the flower comes in many shades of almost every color – there really isn’t a green iris and the breeders are working on a true red.  

Here’s how to divide the bearded iris.

Looking at this cluster of iris in my garden, you can see a lot of rhizomes crowded together. The rhizome is actually a modified part of the iris stem from which the roots, the leaves, and the flower stem immerge. It is a fleshy tuber which lies horizontally close to the surface of the soil and it multiplies over the years. You really should divide the rhizomes every 3-4 years. I’m guessing it’s been more like 5-6 years since I have divided these. They can be dug up and divided anytime after the blooming is finished, but the best time is probably between the middle of July until the first of September. There should be at least 6 weeks before the ground starts to freeze so they can become established. I took a garden fork and carefully started to lift the rhizomes up and out of the garden.

Gently pull them apart using your hands.

I ended up with a heap of rhizomes!

I washed them off with the hose, pulled off any brown or spotted leaves, trimmed the leaves down 3-6 inches, and began to cut them into individual sections, each with at least one fan – you can also see a few buds on the sides.

Throw away the big old sections – they are done producing. (Can you see the red arrow in the picture – that is what you throw away.) Throw away any pieces that are soft or squishy or if you see any holes bored into them. I dipped the knife in a 1 part bleach to 9 parts water solution to prevent any spread of disease. I also dipped the rhizome in the solution for good measure. I looked around to see what else I could dip in it but didn’t find anything.

Then I stopped and took this picture of the kitty enjoying herself in the garden. 

Dig your soil up a bit, add compost or peat moss at this time if you think it needs it. The iris likes a soil that drains well, otherwise there can be a concern of root rot. Iris should also have at least 6 hours of sunlight per day.  At this point you don’t need to add fertilizer, you can apply that in the springtime.   

Now it’s important to plant the rhizomes so that about a third of the top of the rhizome is showing – at the most only about an inch of soil should be covering the rest. Dig a hole big enough to spread out the feeder roots (the fat roots, you can trim them down to around 2-3 inches if you want), put a ridge of soil along the middle of the hole on which you will set the rhizome, bury the roots, and slightly cover the rhizome. They can be planted 8-12 inches apart in drifts where the fans are all pointing in one direction, or you can plant them in a circle, as I like to do, and then you plant them a little closer together. It creates a nice effect in the garden. Water them in well.

Well, that’s it for dividing iris. Now take all those extra rhizomes and hand them out to neighbors, friends, family, bring them to church and give them away. (They kind of become like zucchini after awhile…you might have to put them in a grocery bag, hang them on someone’s mail box, and drive away as fast as you can.)

But once you get someone to plant them, they will begin to cherish them, and they will become apart of their garden memories.

I wish I could say this is my garden – do you know whose famous garden it is?


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Filed under dividing iris, gardening, parsonage, Perennials, Uncategorized

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