Bearded Iris in all the colors of the rainbow!

I have always had a love hate relationship with bearded iris. As I get older, I find myself enjoying the array of colors bearded iris offer in the late spring garden more and more.

Growing up, there was always a random grouping of bearded iris planted near the peonies (which had been there for at least 50 years) at my parents’ house. I believe those bearded iris were purchased by my mom from a flyer in the newspaper. The bearded iris by the peonies seemed out of place to me. Once they were done blooming, I wasn’t always a fan of their leaves. When I moved out of my parents’ house I lived next to a neighbor who had a strange obsession with planting bearded iris along her chain link fence, and again they appeared out of place to me.

In 2013 I was fortunate to be able to travel to Schreiner’s Iris Gardens for Holland Bulb Farms to research new varieties and assist in photographing them. When I saw the bearded iris blooming in gardens in large groupings of color, planted among late spring blooming perennials that included poppies, peonies, and allium it changed my perspective on these colorful and unique perennial classics.

Continue reading for 5 tips to help you enjoy or improve your bearded iris plantings. Whether you are planting bearded iris for the first time, or have an existing area of bearded iris these 5 tips will help.

Bearded Iris

   1.Plant new rhizomes in August or September for the BEST results

Bearded Iris bulbs are for sale and available for shipping from online retailers such as Holland Bulb Farms beginning in mid-August. These perennial bulbs that grow from rhizomes are available for planting early in the season, as this will help to ensure the best results for your iris plantings this year. There are 2 main reasons you will want to plant your bearded iris rhizomes in late summer to early fall. First, Bearded Iris need at least 6 weeks before the ground freezes to establish roots to survive the winter and start taking in nutrients. Second, when bearded iris are planted early in the season the chances of them blooming the first spring after planting go up exponentially. Therefore, if you want the best chance of seeing your iris bloom the following spring, be sure to plan and plant your bearded iris in August or September.

   2.Prepare your soil for your Iris plantings

Generally, bearded irises are an easy to grow perennial once they are established. Your preparation at the time of planting can have an important impact on the overall health and longevity of your bearded iris rhizomes. Bearded Iris have a few requirements when it comes to their planting location. The first requirement is a full sun location, which means that the area gets 6-8 plus hours of direct sunlight per day. The second requirement is soil that drains well. If the bulbs are sitting in wet, saturated and poorly drained soil this leaves them susceptible to root rot.

Be sure when planting your iris rhizomes that you are planting at the proper depth. You will want the rhizome to be showing above the soil, which means you will be planting the rhizome about 1-2” deep.  When iris rhizomes are planted too deep, they may not grow. If they do grow planting too deep is a common reason that they would not bloom.

Once you have a sunny location picked out, check your soil’s drainage. You will be able to tell if the soil drains well by digging a 12” deep hole and filling the hole with water. If the water takes more than 1 hour to drain from the hole, your soil is poorly drained and will need to be enhanced to improve drainage. Bearded irises require well-drained soil to thrive, do not ignore attending to your soil prior to planting. To enhance your soil in the bearded iris planting area, dig out the area you will be planting the rhizomes wider than the rhizome is by itself by (2-3 times the width of the rhizome).

Bearded Iris Rhizomes Diagram

By making your planting hole larger than the rhizome it will allow for easy root penetration when the rhizomes are growing and establishing themselves. Mix your existing soil with top soil or plant starter mix.  Adding organic matter to the planting area will help improve the soil structure, nutrient uptake and increase the drainage. Organic matter to consider adding to your planting area would be compost from your garden, mushroom compost, peat humus, or leaf mold.  Once your soil has been amended with the combination of your existing soil, top soil and organic matter it should be light and easy to work with. At this time you are ready to plant your bearded iris rhizomes.

   3.Transplanting iris and divide old plantings

If you have an existing patch of bearded iris that need to be moved, late summer and very early fall are the ideal times to do so. You may want to transplant your iris because they have overgrown their location, or do not fit in with the surrounding plants. Another common reason to move or divide bearded iris is that they have stopped blooming. If your bearded iris used to provide lots of flowers, and for the past year or two no longer produce heavily or at all, that is a good sign they need to be dug up and divided.

   4. Inspect, clean and eradicate area for Iris borers

Bearded Iris are generally fairly easy to grow, and only require the occasional dividing after being in a location for several years. The biggest pest of bearded iris are Iris Borers. Iris borers live underground, tunnel into the leaves, and travel down to the rhizomes and roots of the iris plants. Iris who have been attacked by the Iris Borer will become weak, withered and will eventually die. Iris that have been affected by borers will have disfigured, discolored leaves in early summer. Look for dark streaks on the leaves as an indication that borers are present. The rhizomes of affected bearded iris may also be soft, rotten and have a foul odor.

The most recommended way to reduce and control Iris borers is with thorough sanitation to the planting area. What does sanitizing the area entail? In fall, and into spring remove leaves from the iris, and any leaves or other debris that is surrounding the iris planting area. Eggs for next season’s bearded iris borer live in the leaf litter, which is why it is important to remove or burn the leaves and debris that may be affected. If you are certain you have Iris borer affecting an existing grouping of bearded iris, once the rhizomes are removed from that area it is not suggested to re-plant new bearded iris in that area. In spring and during the summer months additional considerations may need to be taken to reduce, remove or prevent iris borer problems, we’ll cover that a later date. Pink Bearded Iris

  5. Companion plants for Iris

Life is better with friends! Your garden will be better if your plants have friends to accentuate their best qualities. As mentioned earlier I have not always been a fan of bearded iris due to their foliage after the blooms fade. The foliage is large, green sword like blades and can be a bit harsh in the landscape. To soften the appearance of the clump of foliage that will be left after the bearded iris are finished blooming in late spring you will want to plant other bulbs and perennials with the iris as companions.

Spring blooming peonies pair well with bearded iris, blooming at the same time the color combinations are exciting and nearly endless. Compact varieties of peony such as Plena Alba can be planted in front of or staggered between bearded iris plantings.  Growing only 18-24” tall the leaves of the peony will help cover the foliage of bearded iris, while the glorious and colorful bearded iris blooms appear above the peony foliage.

Allium bulbs are a late spring blooming flower bulb favorite! Coming in a variety of colors and shapes allium blooms compliment bearded iris well. Tall purple blooming types such as Allium giganteum, Gladiator Allium and White Giant Allium look nice planted with yellow, orange and purple bearded iris like Imbroglio, Bold Look, Avalon Sunset and Anvil of Darkness.

Brightly colored Oriental Poppies such as Turkenlouis and and Harlem can be planted in front and around bearded iris. Both poppies and bearded iris require well drained soil in order to thrive, so planting them together works well. Turkenlouis Oriental Poppy is a bright red/orange poppy, it looks best when planted with orange, white, or blue bearded iris. Harlem Oriental Poppy has deep pink raspberry blooms. For a cool and frilly look plant Harlem Oriental Poppy with Lotus Land Bearded Iris and Winterfest Bearded Iris.

Peonies, Poppies, Allium and Bearded Iris are all best when planted in fall. This makes companion planting for these varieties convenient since the whole area can be planted at the same time. If you already have bearded iris and want to add to it, you can certainly add any of these bulbs or roots to the area as well.

Bearded Iris and Allium

For a blooming garden of color plant and tend to your bearded iris.

Bearded Iris bloom in almost every color of the rainbow, there are even black iris and true blue iris. This array of color makes them such a useful garden plant for any sunny area. My opinions have changed on bearded iris over time, at the moment I don’t have enough sun to plant them in my yard. However, in the future when I have a sunnier location I will be sure to take these 5 things into consideration when planting my bearded iris.