Irises provide color, structure

The lemony fragrance of some and extraordinary and subtle colors combinations can have the effect of enhancing other flowering plants.

Photo by Susan Safford

Abigail Higgins has been writing Garden Notes since 2002, and she has kept a kitchen garden for about 50 years. A resident of West Tisbury, she is an officer of the M.V. Agricultural Society.

Last week’s rain settled some of the pollen-storm surrounding us, for which we are grateful. The sources are at this time primarily grasses, oak, and autumn olive. I report (with relief) the many bumblebees, along with their accustomed buzzing, foraging on the large roseum elegans rhododendrons at my place, primarily at dawn and dusk. Those vast mountains of magenta blossom, usually hosting scores of industrious bumblebees, had seemed eerily silent for the past two seasons.

What’s new in garden irises?        

The June parade of iris has begun. Actually, dwarf bearded and rock-garden iris, such as the reticulatas, arrived in April and May, providing a welcome early shot of color.

As stand-alone clumps, there are few garden plants that provide the architecture and color of irises. They are a family that sneakily becomes an obsession, due also in part to the lemony fragrance of some and extraordinary and subtle colors combinations, which can have the effect of enhancing other flowering plants.

While the dedicated breeders of all types post their efforts on blogs and facebook pages, where many photos may be found, it is the tall bearded (TB) iris that dominates gardens now. Schreiner’s Iris Gardens is one of the premier American growers; their 2014 introductions may be seen at

Considering the wealth and variety of plants that are not TBs, it is a shame that the selection offered in common trade is so limited. The different types of bearded irises were originally hybridized from different species, according to Renée Fraser on the American Iris Society’s Facebook page:

“The ones that are not TB are collectively known as ‘median irises‘. They are further broken down into Miniature Dwarf Bearded (MDB), Intermediate Bearded (IB), Miniature Tall Bearded (MTB) and Standard Dwarf Bearded (SDB) irises.  Information about cultural requirements can be foundhere.”

The beardless Siberian irises and ‘medians’ have become more interesting to me. Due to drenching rains that frequently coincide with iris season, I find myself searching out cultivars with less height and flower size; originally though, notions of “bigger-is-better” had corralled me. The phenomenal branching and enormous, upward-facing flower of modern TB hybrids require a stem so stout (to withstand toppling in rain) as to skew the plants’ aesthetic proportions.

Siberians are probably the best irises for the perennial border and landscaping. Ensata Gardens in Michigan is the source of many (plus numerous Japanese, Louisiana, and more). From Ensata’s website,, with many Siberian cultivars plus photos: “They [Siberians] prefer a slightly acid, organic rich damp soil, but are very adaptable. Their foliage is tall and graceful all season, even as they turn a handsome red-brown after frost. They are dug and divided in Spring, right after bloom, or early fall. Keep them moist for the rest of the year after transplanting.”

“Coffee For Roses”

C.L. Fornari’s new, delightfully no-nonsense book, “Coffee For Roses,” (St. Lynn’s Press, 2014, 146 pgs.) is the book I would have wanted to write if I were as competent and experienced — not to mention as fine a photographer — as C.L., the Garden Lady of Cape Cod and beyond. She is, as well, the author of the beautiful “A Garden Lover’s Martha’s Vineyard” (Commonwealth Editions, 2008, 132 pgs.).

The new book’s subtitle, “and 70 Other Misleading Myths About Backyard Gardening,” says it all: it is an argument-settler. It is beautifully illustrated, mostly with C. L.’s own photography, and affably serves up information on how you should be gardening. Fornari succinctly lays many rumored garden quick-fixes and practices to rest in the 70 numbered, easy-to-digest sections. They reflect not only some of the latest, science-based findings but also some of the older, sturdy 19th century practices that have recently been proven correct.

For instance, number 18: “the soil in vegetable gardens needs to be turned every year.” Fornari’s easy to find “thumbnail” conclusions are featured in boxes; number 18 says, “Turning soil always exposes weed seeds to light, triggering their germination.” Then, the text supplies further information.

Number 51: “I need to do something before this spreads.” The box: “There are several arguments for pausing before taking action.” Then, further elaboration. It is a good format and one that will be very helpful to gardeners wanting to get on with the What and the How, without necessarily attending a master gardener class. (Great hostess gift too, I might mention.)

Earthworms: invasive?

Speaking of gardening myths, a confounding article in the spring/summer 2014 edition of the New England Wild Flower Society’s journal is titled “The Trouble with Earthworms.” Whoa! you say, but yes indeed, earthworms as we know them, those turners of the soil and engines of enrichment, are actually invasive species. For forests, especially, they can be detrimental.

For most gardeners this is news, proudly focused as we are on adding humus and increasing organic content, and considering earthworms as our unpaid helper/allies. “Earthworms from Asia and Europe were introduced to this country both inadvertently, in soil-containing materials, and deliberately, for use in waste management.” Due primarily to their predilection for digesting the debris of the forest floor, the duff layer, earthworms speed up biological activity.

In ecosystems that develop without earthworms, such as in post-glacier North America forests, the biological activity is slow, and is primarily fungal. The duff layers overlaying the soil become the matrix for the plant communities that comprise those forests.

With earthworms now digesting the duff at a phenomenal rate, the matrix no longer supports the germination and regeneration of forest trees. Researchers in Vermont and Minnesota have shown that heavily invaded sites favor certain plant species, including many invasive plant species. “However helpful they are in gardens, in northern forests earthworms are as destructive as white-tailed deer.”