The beginning of my personal foray into selling irises was the result of no available expendable income. If I were to continue this hobby, I needed cash! Even the most elementary understanding of morality would demand that monies sorely needed for food, shelter and clothing of the family not be improperly spent on flowers of frivolity!
Born into a farming family, I was painfully aware that ignorance is not bliss when it comes to farming at any level. The toughest part of this success equation was learning how to grow plants in the eastern U. S. that would rival plants grown in the western territories.
Lesson #1 : Get acquainted with your soil. We have moderately sandy to heavy clay, depending how far you walk in any direction. Being in the center of the great eastern glacial massacre, there is no shortage of rocks, boulders, gravel or small pebbles. Soil deposits are shallow to non-existent. Abundant deposits of phosphate are the only vestige of fertility present.
Lesson #2: Find a crop adaptable to your available soil and climate. The obvious in my pathetic soil would be to find a crop with relatively shallow rooting habits. In the case of irises, excellent drainage would be critical. (One would think that rocks and gravel would assure good drainage. Not so!! Heavy clay, gravel, moisture and heat equals BRICK!!) I quickly learned that the admonition to add sand to my clay soil was horticultural suicide. I now know that adding creek sand would have been a better choice. Another lesson learned was that irises fade quickly in mucky soil that does not drain swiftly. Your assumptions that I was making this much too complicated are right on target.
To have beautiful plants, organic matter must be in abundant supply. With poverty as my constant companion, manure (free for the hauling!) seemed the obvious choice. My farming background told me to bury it, if only to keep the weed seed from germinating. Burying manure in deep furrows with the iris planted in ridges above yielded beautiful plants and wonderful stalks and flowers. That instant success turned into disaster when moles started tunneling underneath the iris rows to feast on the fat, juicy grubs that were luxuriating in the manure. (Ever had entire iris plants---bloom, stalk and all—to disappear overnight in an underground tunnel now inhabited by voles?) Not good.
This was the nightmarish end of my organic gardening dream.
Lesson #3: Try outsmarting God and you will be humbled by the divine and not-so-divine. Finances reduced my options immensely. Certainly the alfalfa remedy (a trend that was not yet in vogue) would have been out of the question although many years later I did try it with modest (and pricey) initial success. I kept racking my brain, searching for some naturally-occurring source of organic material. A cover crop to be plowed under would require twice as much precious soil. It would be many years before it would occur to me that an old barn filled with aging straw would be worth trying. (Every iris grower I ever talked to warned me of the evils of nitrogen. You would think that my knowing that the process of decomposition uses up and reduces nitrogen levels in the soil would lead me to surmise that this process would make for perfectly happy and starving iris plants.)
At this point I also had not been warned of the evils of deadly bacteria in straw just waiting to zap all my iris plants or I would never have spread the first bale. (Thank goodness yet another declaration of doom was kept from me until one of the local iris experts found out what I was doing!) I have been told that oat straw is preferred to wheat straw. Now that my straw supplies are depleted and I must now buy straw, I may try the “oat” brand.
After the first year, I noticed that my plants did not have a deep green color. “Oh, my God! There is a chlorophyll shortage!” Well, not exactly. In my “simple” logic I assumed that like corn, these poor irises needed a shot of ammonium nitrate. (I had forgotten that irises enjoyed being deprived of nitrogen.) The bloom season had just ended. Scant to generous applications of ammonium nitrate were dangerously applied just as the stalks were removed. The plants responded immediately by turning a healthy green and by growing lushly. Local iris experts again sounded the dire predictions of impending rot, disaster and death. Ceremonial chewing of the fingernails in combination with tossing and turning in the night seemed to have little effect on the irises. The robust plants continued to grow with abandon, displaying no signs of impending death. Rejoice! Rejoice! The curse of the iris experts was ended!
Lesson #4: Proper feeding produces happy and healthy plants. It also produces healthy weeds and grass! (Now I think I know where the “Twiggy” philosophy of starving iris plants may have its undernourished “roots” of origin.) Another idea surfaced. When the irises finished blooming, I added a heavy side dressing of ammonium nitrate and mulched between the rows with straw, being careful not to put the straw fragments against the rhizomes and foliage. In late August or early September, the straw is plowed into the soil with my trusty roto-tiller. A soil test is made and depleted nutritional additives are put back into the soil. New plants are put into this soil or the rows are left intact for another season of bloom. (This might be the proper time to apply pre-emergent herbicides if you choose to use them.) The straw mulch can be re-applied between the rows immediately. As we often have very, very wet winters, I do not re-apply straw here until after bloom season. Before I spread the straw between the rows, I clean and cultivate the garden completely. This practice continues to be a successful strategy for adding organic matter AND keeping weeds and grass to a minimum here. When the plants are lifted, I practice intensive soil rotation—the paths become the new planting rows and the former planting rows become paths between the new rows.
Lesson #5: Examine established iris clumps growing in their grassy and weedy natural habitats. Even along roadways, tall bearded irises in the wild here grow with the top half of the rhizome fully exposed to sunshine and rain. If you are replanting late, you may cover your rhizomes with soil to reduce heaving and to protect from unpredictable and fluctuating winter temperatures. You MUST, however, remove this soil as soon as the plants begin to stretch in the spring or soft rot may be your constant, smelly companion in Tennessee soils. (I am fully aware that this does not work in many other parts of the iris world!)
My guess is that this overgrowth of weeds and grass quickly drink away the excessive moisture we eastern gardeners experience during the growing season. I once tried planting our widely naturalized Iris Pallida diploid species in an ultra-fertile “professional” horticultural setting. Without the weed and grass overgrowth, the plants flopped over with rot when soggy soil encroached the rhizomes, denying them of air and sun exposure! Lesson #3 was re-visited. Pay attention to God at all times.
I remember visiting Bill Bledsoe’s Fayetteville, Tennessee seedling rows for many years. He never weeded his plantings and literally “burned” off the rows in late winter. He would cultivate between the rows in early spring and expect only the fittest to survive. Not a very attractive setting, but certainly an idea for one not inclined to pull weeds and grass!
Lesson #6: Too many chemicals is not a good thing. I have visited many iris gardens in my 34 years of iris gardening–many more private plantings than commercial. Many soils have been destroyed by the excessive application of chemicals in an attempt to eliminate weeds and grass, causing plants to decline into much scrawnier versions of their former robust selves. Be forewarned. Plants that have received excessive chemical applications yield tell-tale signs of damage. Freshly dug plants often have reduced numbers of roots per rhizomes as well as smaller caliper roots. When newly planted they often sulk for weeks, may fail to grow normally and often increase at slower-than-normal rates.
I have also learned over these thirty something years of growing irises that most verbal of the iris experts tend to grow few plants.... and those are usually not grown very well. Be cautious in declaring that modern irises are not as easily grown as their predecessors. It may not be the irises at all ... but, rather, what has been ADDED to the soil or what is not being REPLACED in the soil.
Lesson #7: Exhaustion is my constant companion. Gardening is stimulating, challenging and hard work. When you add digging, labeling, packing and shipping to the typical gardener’s routine of planting, growing and weeding, one learns that commercial iris gardening is not for one who loves the recliner. I would suggest that it is great therapy for fools and idiots! It is a year ‘round endeavor. With the first warming of spring, every spare moment is spent outdoors. The dinner hour is “after dark” for at least 8 months of the year (unless you skip it and fall into bed hungry). The other 4 months are spent repairing markers, updating planting charts, counting plants, preparing catalog text, jousting with the printer of your catalog and (finally!) labeling, sorting and mailing the price list!
My commercial endeavor was designed to function and to continue as a very “small scale” enterprise. Just how many rhizomes of a particular variety must you grow to ensure that you have enough of those large, firm and well-rooted specimen plants to fill your orders?