Sunday, July 25, 2010


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/25/2010)

While daffodils are the first wave ashore in the struggle to reclaim gardens from late winter’s doldrums, bearded irises are the second wave, securing spring’s beachhead. A poor man’s orchid, they are one of the most complex and beautiful flowers ever to grace a garden. Indeed, the word “iris” is a Greek word meaning “rainbow,” “halo,” or “messenger of the gods.” John of the Apocalypse writes: “Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire (10:1).”

Adaptable to the climatic rigors of High Country, irises are both tough and beautiful. Tough means they’re hardy, but it doesn’t mean they can be neglected. They need care, such as nutrients and bedding, and if cared-for well, they will return the care with a nonpareil beauty. Care begins with bedding. The makings of good bedding are aplenty in the High Country, clay, cinders, and compost.

If a gardener has clay, add cinders, and if cinders, add clay. Irises like a soft, friable bed. They also like lots of compost. The best bed has good drainage because they don’t like a soggy bed. But who does? Irises will tend to rot if swamped out.

With irises it’s important to start out well because unlike annuals the beds can’t be enriched with compost each year. Those rhizomes are going to be stuck in that bed for several years. One of the big items in caring for irises is being fertilized with a low nitrogen and high phosphate fertilizer (6-10-10) six weeks before they bloom and right after they bloom and with super-phosphate or bone meal (0-10-10) in the fall. Since irises are all root, they need phosphorus to promote root development. With too much nitrogen, as in lawn fertilizer, they will tend to rot.

Irises do best in a sunny location with at least six hours of sunlight a day. As far as water is concerned, they’re a xeriscaper’s dream. In the High Country, they need water when they’re planted until the new center leaves appear. During dry spells, they’re best watered every 3 to 4 weeks, and again in the spring before blooming. Also, they’re best mulched before the snows of winter with the mulch removed after the last hard frost.

The best time to plant iris rhizomes in the High Country is the middle of August, giving them enough time to get their roots established before the winter freeze comes. After the soil has been enriched, make a shallow hole in the soil about twice the size of the rhizome with a small mound of soil in the center. Put the rhizome on top while draping the roots down the sides of the mound. In Flagstaff because of our cold winters, the soil should slightly cover the rhizome. Do not plant them deep.

Irises can be attractively planted in groups of three throughout a yard, 12” apart, with the toes pointing inward in a triangle. If planted in rows, all the toes should point in the same direction to avoid crowding, spaced 18” apart. Remember to keep the soil in which the rhizomes are planted moist for two or three weeks until the first news leaves appear.

After blooming, the stalks on which the flowers appear are best removed, not to drain energy from the plant. Every three to four years, irises should be replanted to prevent overcrowding and to encourage renewing. This is generally best done a month or so after blooming. Clumps can be renewed by removing the old center of the clump or by digging up the entire clump and removing the old plant and replanting the newer rhizomes with the fans attached.

Irises come in many sizes for many tastes. The tall bearded irises when planted in a circle or triangle appear as though they were a lush aureole of exotic colors hovering above the garden betraying their name “rainbow” or “halo.” When studied, one can even hear the voices of those messengers of the gods.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010

Friday, July 02, 2010


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7-2-10)

In the middle of summer with autumn a month and a half off, Albert Camus’ sentence, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower” comes to mind. Every season has its own beauty, especially autumn when the trees’ haunting beauty displays hues of life as the slumber of winter looms. The exception is late winter’s bleak grasp when the snow no longer glistens white, but a dull gray, and the ground is covered with winter’s dead debris. That’s the time to break the dismal spell.

Oddly, late summer is the time to think about that grim interim season when the first flowers break bleak winter’s faltering grasp. If there is anything that would break that grasp, it’s Wordsworth’s daffodils “fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” Autumn’s the time to plant them, and the late summer is the time to order them to get the best bargains and best quality.

While nothing is ever a cinch in the garden, daffodils come close. For the fussy and pristine, they have only one drawback. After flowering, the stalks should be allowed to whither and dry in plain sight. Only when they’re desiccated, should the husks be swept up and taken way. The reason is simple: the bulbs are drawing nutrients back into themselves. After such a glorious display, tossing “their heads in sprightly dance,” it’s heartless to deny the bulb its place at the dinner table. It’s also unwise because if denied, the bulb will retaliate with an ever decreasing glory, ending up like a fashion model sans make-up. Also, after the blooms are spent, the blossoms should be picked.

As with most things, success with daffodils begins with preparation, that is, the preparation of the soil. First, pick a site with good drainage, else the bulbs will be prone to rot. The soil should be friable. If clay, add either sand or volcanic cinders. Compost should be dug in a foot in depth along with 5-10-10 fertilizer. Don’t use a high nitrogen fertilizer because nitrogen will induce rot or excessive leafage. Also, dig in bone meal. Then plant the bulbs about six inches deep. Their “jocund company” looks best either strewn out in drifts or in spots of four or five bulbs here and there throughout the garden. Marching them in line doesn’t do justice to their “sparkling waves.”

They need about 5-6 hours of sunlight a day, so depending upon where they’re planted, their blooming season can be extended. A southern exposure will produce earlier blooms while a northern exposure will produce later blooms, stretching out their blooming time.

After blooming, when the dead stalks have been carried away by the wind or at the hand of a tidy gardener, it’s time to fertilize them with the same type of fertilizer with which they were first planted. Before winter sets in, they should be covered with a layer of mulch.

Also, daffodils can be planted in pots. Indeed, a few pots with blooming daffodils are a cheery greeting on a front walk or a delightful sight from the kitchen window on a back deck. Planting in pots isn’t difficult, but the bulbs are best replanted the next season outside in the ground to be rejuvenated. Pots aren’t their natural habitat. The pot should be six to eight inches in depth and should thoroughly cleansed before using to prevent rot. It’s best to use potting soil because of ease and clean soil. Daffodils require at least thirteen weeks of cold weather. If an early bloom is desirable, after the 13 weeks cold spell, the pot can be brought inside and maintained at 60ºF. three to four weeks.

A display of daffodils is often enhanced with companion plants like grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniancin) or even a variety of daffodils to lengthen the blooming season. When everything is spent, wildflower seeds can be sown in the same plot or drift or other annuals can be planted, extending the blooming season.

While daffodils bring a early beauty to a late winter’s melancholy eye, they also bring the heart pleasure. Wordsworth said it best: “My heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils.”

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010