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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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?