It's time to care for next spring's iris

Duane Campbell

There were iris in there somewhere, I was pretty sure of it. I could see an occasional sword shaped leaf poking above the overgrowth. I knew I hadnít intentionally planted the crabgrass in that part of the border. And though I did plant the lamium, that was some distance away. Of course grass that refused to thrive where I wanted it luxuriated once the roots ducked under the brick edging and hit the rich soil of the bed.

I started ripping out lamium and crabgrass and violets and a few things I didnít recognize but knew I hadnít planted. And I knew it was futile. Iris tubers gripped the roots of the weeds, which would come back the minute my back was turned. It had been too long since I had last renovated that iris bed. This was just the time of year to do it.

Many gardeners cut iris leaf fans back by half every summer without the faintest idea why except that their grandmothers did. Donít. Except now. You only need to cut the leaves back when you are transplanting, to balance the top with the damaged root system. If you are going to ignore them for another year or two, donít cut the leaves back. They are making energy for next yearís blooms.

As gardening chores go, this is both simple and easy, not to mention satisfying. Iris come out clean with a spading fork, with tubers trailing stout roots. If they come out with a clump of soil, that is because weed roots are holding it together.

Give the clump a vigorous shake to loosen the root ball and start pulling the weeds out, roots and all. Quickly you will get the iris roots isolated Ė theyíre tough Ė and anything that is not iris root needs to be removed, The long white grass roots are particularly important, because one tiny piece will start things all over. Throw the tubers in a pile. No need to be gentle.

Now comes the pure pleasure of spading in loosened soil in vacant ground on a crisp fall day. Run your spade through it a couple of times to make sure you have all the weed roots. If you can find some fallen leaves somewhere, throw them in.

Iris roots are shallow, and for years I replanted them by scraping out a foot wide circle, planting the iris, covering the roots, scraping out a nearby spot, planting, and so on. Because iris roots want to embrace, this was awkward. Lately Iíve come up with a better way.

I shoveled off the top four inches of soil, set it aside, dug in more dead leaves and leveled the bed. After breaking the larger clumps apart, I laid the iris tubers out with the roots overlapping as they normally would. Then I replace the soil over the top. Since iris tubers like to be just on the soil surface, I reach in and pull the tuber up and firm the soil.

You can shovel the soil back over them, that works, but I like to sift it over them. For many years I had a hand sifter dating back to the early days when I bought things foolishly, but it finally fell apart. I have grown wiser. I took a plastic plant saucer, about 15 inches, and cut the bottom out, leaving a one inch lip. Then I cut a piece of scrap half-inch hardware cloth to fit. It works exactly the same way and I saved 25 bucks.

I watered the iris in well and sprinkled Preen weed preventer on the surface. Iris arenít crazy about mulch, and the Preen will help control the weeds that seem to love germinating in fall. Done. Maybe.

Now, what is this I had planted next to the iris?

Duane Campbell is a nationally known agricultural expert. He can be reached at 12 Burgess Drive, Towanda, PA 18848 or e-mail dcamp911@gmail.com.