Iris

It’s iris season. While some take prized positions in well-planned perennial borders, other tall bearded iris spangle parking medians, flash out of gravel wastelands in neglected foundation beds, march along driveways.

Iris shares its name with a Greek goddess of the sea and sky. In mythology, she is a messanger, able to travel from the underworld to the heavens and is associated with the rainbow. She brings water to the clouds. The water she carries is also poured on those who perjure themselves, putting them to sleep. Here she is depicted in Morpheus and Iris, an 1811 painting by Pierre Narcisse Guerin.

As a member of the garden pantheon, Iris has a lot to recommend her. Irises generally require little care, are long-lived, and multiply easily. And who can quarrel with the immense variety of color they offer?

Iris do best in full sun, and prefer a neutral, well-draining soil.

They perform best on a lean diet. A low-nitrogen fertilizer may be applied when bloom stalks appear and about a month after blooming.

Iris should be divided every 3-5 years. The best time to divide is right after blooming.

Remove dead leaves and spent bloom stalks, but don’t compost them. Leave the rest of the fan standing, as the greenery feeds the rhizome.

OK, it’s true: the bloom season is short, especially if the weather turns brutally hot and windy. A well-planned perennial garden, however, will have something to capture our hearts soon as the iris fade.

The Miserable Gardener , in a blog entry titled “After the Rain,” has written off iris. But even Mr. Miserable makes an acception: Iris pallida. My favorite variety is “Variegata.” The leaves glow all season.

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Mid-Spring Frangrance

Spring enchants us with tender perfumes.

Spice up the sweetness with Viburnum carlesii.

Commonly known as Koreanspice Viburnum, this shrub is versatile and easy to care for.

Hardy to zone 4, which, in Colorado is about 7500 feet. It may also be grown in much warmer climates.

It will do well in most exposures, thriving if it gets a little break from the sun. The beauty above is planted in nearly full shade at about 6500 feet.

Once established, its water needs are moderate. It wants its roots in neutral to slightly acidic soil.

Perfect for smaller gardens, it is slow growing and compact, 4 to 6 feet tall and wide. The branches are upright, and the overall shape of the shrub is rounded. Very easily pruned to maintain size and shape. The slightly fuzzy, grayish-green leaves seem to avoid deer predation, except where visits are frequent or the season is lean on browse.

Of course, the main attraction in mid-Spring are its highly fragrant and long-lasting flowers. The flower clusters are up to three inches across. Rosy pink buds open to the palest blush and mature to nearly pure white. The scent travels on both warm and cool breezes. It is complex and hints at cloves.

These wonderful flowers form red berries which mature to black. Fall color is usually reddish-orange.

Plant one. Plant a mass. Whatever you do, place Viburnun carlesii where its intense perfume can be thoroughly enjoyed.

Sage and Savvy, Number One

What’s a gardening website without tips, tid-bits, and to-do lists?

Every now and then, at least, don’t you think?

Some of my favorite tools for Spring clean-up. Especially the little rake. It can get into the crunchiest of places.

Spring clean-up will soon be wrapping up in these parts, but just in case you’re running a little behind, like I am, here’s a couple of tips:

  • Use hedge shears to cut back dead stems and grasses. I find cutting is easier on the plants than pulling, except with daylilies and iris.
  • Cut down a whole bed at once (unless it’s too windy), and then rake it off.
  • Toss everything directly into a large trash can or open tarp that drags along as you progress through a bed.
  • Compost at home, or take winter’s dregs to a place like our beloved Rocky Top for recycling.

Gotta love a hori-hori.

Now is a great time to:

  • Blade out those cool season weeds, like dandelions.
  • Get soil activator and fertilizer on what’s left of your lawn.
  • Scatter, scratch, and water in compost or organic fertilizer around your shrubs, grasses, and perennials.
  • Turn on your irrigation system or start dragging hoses.
  • Top off your mulch.
  • Cut new edges along beds and walkways.
  • Pinch back those geraniums you overwintered.
  • Resume the stretching you ignored all winter long.
  • Stock up on sunscreen.

Oh, and if you have early season tulips of daffodils that have finished blooming, snap off the seed pod forming at the tip of the stem. Bulbs tire more easily if they bear seeds.

Always remember to step back from time to time and admire your work.

Oh! Oh! And one more thing: Schedule a massage.

Movie Review: Dirt! The Movie

Sometimes, even the wildest gardener needs a reminder: soil is life and life is soil.

Growing up in Iowa, about 80 miles from the mighty Mississippi, I took soil for granted. What did I know? It was deep. It was black. Stuff grew in it.

Apparently, I was in good company when it came to paying no special heed to dirt. Sometime just past the middle of the last century, the first “green revolution” swept through the country. Petrochemical fertilizer replaced cow poo on Iowa’s fields. So?

Well, the soil became depleted and started to die. So?

With enough fertlizer and water, food crops will grow in the thin soils of the desert. Why should I care if the dirt in Iowa dies?

Decades later, the answer to that question is getting around.

Dirt! The Movie is a kaleidoscopic documentary that plays on the heart like a romance.

The opening scenes, introducing us to the impressive line-up of soil experts and activists, are full of beauty, humor, and whimsy. Children in India dance in the dirt, throwing it in the air with glee. A wine officianado cups a precious handful and dabs his tongue in it. We meet earthworms and mushrooms. It’s a dizzying, giddy love-fest.

Then, kaboom! Scene upon scene of dirt in trouble, dirt defiled, dirt imprisoned beneath concrete. We are warned: throughout history, human civilizations rose and fell in accordance with how they treated dirt.

Thank goodness, this is not where the movie ends. The closing scenes give us hopeful examples of people of many stripes entering a mutually healing relationship with soil.

Only 80 minutes long, visually stunning, and appealing to both our practical and visionary drives, I highly recommend it.

How to Kill Your Lawn and Still Be a Good Neighbor

With the cost of irrigation going up, you might be tempted just to turn off the spigot altogether, take the lawnmower to a donation center, and go someplace cool for coffee.

Wait!

If simply abandoned, a typical urban yard in Colorado will turn into a dirt lot. Seriously. Do you really want to depress your neighbors that much? There are alternatives.

Here’s what you can do:

1) Figure out which grass you just might want to keep. A nice level spot, maybe a little high shade, so you can cool your feet, play croquet, or let the dog have a place to “go”.

2) Dream up what you can put in the place of all that grass. Anything BUT rocks. How about a vegie garden? Create habitat for birds! Put down some mulch, move in a bench, and take a nap. Flowers, now there’s a thought. You could even plant native grasses.

3) Choose a method of elimination. Herbicide (poison). Removal (murder by spade). Or smother it.

4) Put something fun, useful, or pretty in its place.

My friend, DB, took the plunge a couple of years ago. Got rid of all her bluegrass. Replaced most of it with buffalo grass and made an eye-catching mixed border out of her parking median. The new look still fits the neighborhood, but takes almost no supplemental water to maintain. Have a look.

For the full show, so to speak, come on down to the Western Landscape Symposium in Pueblo or book Cheryl to speak for your group.

To Build or Not to Build

Say you live in England and you love desert plants, succulents and cacti from South Africa, Baja California, or somewhere really exotic, like Colorado? Your soil is constantly moist, lightly acidic, crumbly with leaf-mould. It’s terrible! What can you do?

That’s right, you’ll have to build your own soil. Make it lean. Make it gritty. Make it quick to drain. Use a little of your garden soil and mix it with equal parts coarse sand and lightweight perlite. That should do it.

A handmade cactus garden.

Now, isolate the stuff in a pot so you can control how much water it doesn’t get, and so it will dry out fast, like it would in the desert. Then plant it up. Put the whole kit and kaboodle someplace in full sun, but sheltered from the rain, and you’ve got it. Instant, handmade desert.

Sound like a lot of trouble?

It is.

It’s the same kind of trouble we semi-arid plains dwellers go through to grow broccoli.

But what if we semi-arid plains dwellers want to grow native yucca, shrubs, sage, cactus, agave, grasses, and wild beardtongues? Should we build the soil?

It’s a great question, and one with no definitive answer.

Gardeners have a hard time resisting compost or believing (at least at first) that anything of value can grow without our TLC. There’s always the thought that a little assistance can’t hurt. Isn’t it what every plant hopes for?

Maybe. Maybe not. Conventional ideas of fertility may not be a great thing for plants that evolved in and for such “poor” soils as ours. There is even research suggesting native plants will form stronger myccorhizal communities, taking up greater quanities of nutrient from mineral-rich soil, if left to their own devices.

However, there are gardens featuring native plants throughout Colorado, in which soils were amended before the plants went in. There is no question these gardens are thriving.

Native rabbit brush, yucca and grasses, connecting the cultivated with the wild.

To build or not to build?

Why not join in the great experiment yourself, and try some natives?

Life Beneath Our Feet

In addition to dirty knees and fingernails, gardeners have soil on the brain.

In the Pikes Peak Region of east central Colorado, a layer of recognizable top soil is generally thin, if it exists at all. Even so, the undisturbed landscape is far from barren. A host of different plant communities have adapted to a wide variety of growing conditions, not the least of which is the soil beneath their feet.

Our native soils tend to be mineral rich and poor in organic matter. Wind, the great eroder, ice, the occasional stream, and other natural forces break stone into ever smaller particles. Depending on the parent stone, the results are gravel, sand, clay, or silt. Low humidity, high winds, and gully-washing rains contribute to the mobility of these particles.

Native plant community in northern El Paso County.

Native plants adapted to the soil and atmospheric conditions by developing root systems that could hold tight, exploit the minerals, and take up scant moisture. They adapted above ground by forming leathery or hairy or pale green leaves. They spread themselves around via windblown seeds or passage through the guts of birds and mammals.

The tough nature of the leaves combines with low humidity and high winds to keep fallen organic matter from staying put and breaking down into humus.

Thus, existing soil, atmosphere, and native plants form a self-sustaining system.

Enter the wily human, many of whom are never quite satisfied with things as they are, and, let’s face it, we’re not at all suited to nibbling on sideoats gramma, yucca (except the flowers), or mountain mahogany. To encourage nearly every plant that isn’t native to the area, gardeners have to make changes. Many think it’s just a matter of supplementing the moisture that does (and just as often doesn’t) fall from the sky. But the issue is deeper.

Shade trees, blue grass, most ornamental flowers, and nearly all of our favorite vegetables evolved or were developed in areas where soil and atmosphere have vastly different characteristics from our own. Below the surface, mycorrhizae form a link between soil and plant root, converting soil into nutrient for the plant. There are thousands of different mycorrhizae, and more is being learned about them all the time. What is known: the microorganisms, the plants, and the soil have become what they are together in fairly specific ways.

It comes as a surprise to many to learn that soil, even the sparse grit and heavy clays of the Pike Peak Region, are teaming with life. It may also come as surprise that the partnership of soil and plant communities is very easily disturbed or destroyed and not so easily restored. Scraping the surface of vast tracts of land to make way for houses and lawns, even repeated foot or bike traffic interfere with or remove entirely what took a very long time to create.

Over the next weeks, look for more posts about what gardeners can do to build and maintain healthy soil-plant relationships.