Iris aficionados share their gardens and offer up their best tips for growing these eye-catching iris blooms.
Photography by Cheryl Fallstead and Renee Boudreau
A DAY AMONGST THE IRIS
As I passed through the gate into the garden, I was greeted by hundreds of brightly blooming iris flowers. Dozens of people were walking among the beds, bending over to take photographs or read the tags planted by each iris clump. I scanned the crowd for the homeowners, sure they would want to protect their cherished flowers, but I quickly saw that the behavior was accepted and even welcomed. The iris enthusiasts had gathered that day in early April at the home of Jacquie Poutney to inspect and appreciate over 350 iris plants as part of ArilTrek 2018.
The special event, hosted by the Mesilla Valley Iris Society and the Aril Society International, draws in iris aficionados from across the country who come to appreciate all iris in general, as well as one in particular: the arilbred iris. Arilbred irises are crosses of the aril iris, a desert iris from the Middle East that is notoriously difficult to grow, and the popular bearded iris. Arilbred iris grow particularly well in our area and members of the iris society were eager to show off their gardens to other iris lovers.
Ardi Kary from Scottsdale, Arizona, is a commercial iris grower who has been selling arilbred iris for about 30 years, a business she took over from her father. While she agrees that purebred aril iris are temperamental and difficult to grow, she sings the praise of the arilbed iris, saying, “One of the things I’ve noticed is that when arilbreds are in a clump, they are just magnificent because there are more bloom stalks per plant in an arilbred than there are in tall beardeds.”
Phyllis Wilburn, regional vice president of the American Iris Society, from Rescue, California, adds, “The arilbreds and the arils grow so much nicer here in New Mexico and it’s a completely different growing environment from what I experience at home. It’s wonderful to see a lot of the arilbreds blooming. They’re just so unique and not commonly grown. It’s a growing interest for a lot of people.”
Although I didn’t have an iris to my name, I spent the day with these avid gardeners, walking through garden beds with them and soaking up as much information as I could as we visited four very different gardens. The garden tour hosts were Jacquie Poutney in the University area, Howard Dash and Lilly Rawlyk in Picacho Hills, Cynthia and Wes Wilson in the Valley Drive area, and Scarlett Ayers on the East Mesa. Their diverse locations show that iris can thrive in any part of the valley.
I quickly learned that iris cultivars have very cool names. Like racehorses or show dogs, each cultivar has a unique name, bestowed by the hybridizer who develops it. As I wandered the gardens, I was treated to names such as Glamour Puss, I’m Gonna Shout, Honey Not Tonight, Fire in the Hole, and Mean Mr. Mustard. Iris hybridizers must have a great sense of humor. With 80,000 named varieties in the iris records, it’s a challenge to come up with a unique name.
Signs posted by each iris the initials of the class of iris, such as TB for tall bearded or AB for arilbred, and often indicate the year a cultivar was introduced and may name the hybridizer. I spotted garden host Howie Dash’s name on multiple signs in other gardens.
Jacquie, who has been growing iris for about 10 years, showed me how to identify Space Age iris, which can have either horns or flounces. She also pointed out re-blooming iris that put on a show both spring and fall. Along with her hundreds of iris, she also has a greenhouse, fruit trees, and many other plants. She says, “I just have fun doing this. My husband says I turned a carefree garden into work!”
Cynthia Wilson first got into growing iris when she traded raspberry bushes from her Colorado home for iris from another garden. Her iris garden is now over an acre and features over 800 named varieties, including about 150 arilbred iris.
Along with enjoying the wide range of iris grown in the four gardens, the ArilTrek 2018 participants also able to take part in judge training specific to arilbred iris, conducted by Perry Dyer and Dell Perry. Dr. Anna Cadd of Healdsburg, California, a first-time visitor to New Mexico and the master judge for the American Iris Society, says that, after her visit to New Mexico, she plans to develop an on-line training course for other judges to help them properly analyze the distinct aspects of these lovely flowers.
The weekend also included activities such as aril bingo and an aril roundtable to further education about arilbred iris, and a banquet with keynote speaker, iris hybridizer Peter McGrath.
Jim Morris of St. Louis, Missouri, immediate past president of the American Iris Society, summed up the response of visitors after visiting the first garden, by saying “Obviously, it’s a really neat club they have here and this is a beautiful garden, nicely laid out and landscaped, and the hostess was very nice, so we had a good time here!”
What is the Mesilla Valley Iris Society?
In addition to hosting ArilTrek 2018, the Mesilla Valley Iris Society have monthly meetings, host an annual iris show and sale in the spring (this April marked their 45th!) and an iris rhizome sale in the fall, both at the Mesilla Valley Mall.
Iris are propagated by tuber-like roots, called rhizomes. When a rhizome is planted in the garden, it will usually expand within a couple years to a clump of iris, containing more than a dozen rhizomes, each identical to the mother cultivar. Club members dig mature clumps and prepare excess rhizomes for sale at the Big Dig, a work party held each year just before Labor Day. Iris rhizomes for over a hundred different cultivars are offered to the public at the Mesilla Valley Iris Society Rhizome Sale, held the weekend after Labor Day at the Mesilla Valley Mall. The society also gives rhizomes to schools, along with instructions for planting and care, topsoil, tags, and fertilizer.
Debbie Frazier first grew iris in Montana, but got really hooked when she visited the society’s sale at the mall. Three years later, she is the group’s president. Debbie says, “Some of the kids come to the sale with dollar bills and they want to buy them for their moms. The kids are very heartwarming.”
The club meets monthly except June and July, with an informational presentation and a short business meeting. Presentations include topics such as hybridizing advances, types of iris, cultural tips, and preparing iris for shows. They meet the third Sunday of the month at 1:30pm at Village at Northrise. Dues are $10 a year and are prorated if you join after January. They’re happy to help new members get started and, if you’re lucky, you may just get some rhizomes from their gardens.
Debbie urges others to give irises a try in their gardens, saying, “They’re super easy. They thrive on neglect. They’re tough.”
For information about meetings or joining the Mesilla Valley Iris Society call Cynthia Wilson at 303-910-7764 or Norma Placchi at 575-532-9211.
GROW LIKE AN EXPERT
What began as yard work in his mother’s garden, became a passion for iris expert Howie Dash, a former president of the Mesilla Valley Iris Society. Growing up in New York, irises competed among the perennials in the garden.
“I was her worker bee,” Howie says of helping his mother when he was around 10 years old.
Years later, in his own garden, he added irises given to him by a friend, although he knew little about the rhizomes he’d planted. He decided to learn more at an iris society meeting in Poughkeepsie, NY, which inspired him to enter his iris blooms in their annual show. He won his first blue ribbon, and went on to win a Best of Show ribbon, and many others. His dozen irises became 30, then 50, then more than 500. A passion was born.
When Howie and his wife, Lilly, who grows fruit trees, built their home in Las Cruces, he brought more than 150 iris rhizomes with him. Today, 250 irises surround his home in Picacho Hills, and he grows hundreds more at the property of Wes and Cynthia Wilson.
In 2016, Howie introduced ‘Picacho Mountain’ Iris, his first bearded iris hybrid. He has developed and patented numerous irises, including this year’s introductions: Ay Chihuahua, Copper Angel, and Dancer’s Dream. He sells rhizomes through his online catalog at picachomountainiris.com. They also are available at the Mesilla Valley Iris Society’s annual iris sale held in September.
HOWIE’S TIPS FOR GROWING IRISES
1. “September is the best planting time,” he states. Begin planting irises when the monsoon rains begin and up to six weeks before the first frost.
2. Add in some compost. For sandy soil, Howie buys alfalfa pellets from a farm store and chips them up before adding to the soil.
3. While irises are drought tolerant, Howie suggests an underground drip system for irises in sandy soil, so the water is below the roots. He also waters once a week with a hose during hot months.
4. In clay soil, Howie recommends creating raised beds for excellent drainage that can then be flood irrigated. “Irises must have good drainage, but need regular water,” he says.
5. “To maximize bloom, fertilize six weeks before bloom season.” Howie prefers Carl Pool BR-61 to fertilize for its high phosphorus, potassium, and micronutrients, but lower nitrogen content. “Too much nitrogen, and irises rot.”
6. The Mesilla Valley Iris Society purchases this fertilizer in bulk to sell to members at a wholesale price. It’s one of several benefits of belonging to the Society!
7. Irises have few pest problems here. In spring, gardeners should watch for aphids. Howie suggests washing them off with a strong spray of water. If there is a heavy infestation, he prefers a systemic pesticide.
8. “Water first; then fertilize,” Howie says.
9. Maintain a monthly schedule. In January, irises are sleeping and should be watered once per week. The irises begin actively growing in February. March is the month to fertilize. Irises begin blooming in mid-March through May. After the blooms stop in May, cut down the iris stalks. In June and July, the concern is protecting the plants from too much sun. Situate beds to receive afternoon shade or cover the bed with row cover to shade the rhizomes. August calls for the gardener to divide, replant, and fertilize. From September until the first freeze, irises continue to grow. Then they will be somewhat dormant until February.