Prepare your Iris Beds and Grow Healthy Vigorous Iris!

A Sign of Spring on the Way!

Look what I caught hanging out inside one of my rubber boots this week!  A sure sign that spring is on its way!   Time to start preparing your iris beds!

The three most important ingredients for growing healthy and vigorous tall bearded irises are sun, good drainage, and soil.  Providing favorable conditions for your irises will make them much more resistant to diseases and pests.  Now is a good time to start selecting the site for your iris beds or seedling beds and to begin preparing those beds to allow for a healthy population of beneficial soil microorganisms to become established because the microorganisms provide most of the nutrition for your plants.

Sunny Location

Select a sunny location with good air circulation. 

Good Drainage

Heavy soils that consist of a large proportion of clay particles retain a good deal more moisture between rainfalls than sandy or silty soils.  To improve drainage of clay soils, dig in coarse sand, grit, or gravel.  If it’s not possible to amend the soil for drainage or avoid low spots, make raised beds about 8 inches above the natural soil level. 


The health of your soil will determine the health of your plants.  Healthy soils support established populations of beneficial soil organisms.  Two important factors determine if your soil will sustain soil organisms.  (1) Soil organisms need oxygen, so your soil must have a loose enough texture to provide aeration.  (2) Soil organisms need food in the form of naturally occurring organic matter or compost.  Compost helps to loosen the soil texture and provides food for soil organisms.  The major plant nutrients are nitrogen, phosphate, and potash.  When a healthy soil consists of well-established populations of well-fed microorganisms, they extract nitrogen from the air and slowly and evenly release phosphate and potash from decaying organic matter.  Phosphate is the nutrient that irises quickly deplete from soil, and it is the most important nutrient for bearded iris culture.  Colloidal phosphate may be added to soils deficient in phosphate.  Soils containing well-established populations of both microorganisms and earthworms will have sufficient nitrogen for irises.  Most soils provide sufficient potash for irises.

If using animal manure, sawdust, bark, or leaf mold to amend soil, they must be well-rotted for at least a year.  Spread 4 to 6 inches of compost on the bed and dig it in deep, even deep double digging, because iris roots will go very deep.  Continue the mixing process by occasionally tilling and raking the bed for the next few months.  To maintain soil improvements, organic materials must be added regularly.

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Perfect Hummingbird Flowers

Since the floral needs of hummingbirds are so specialized, if the hummingbird gardener offers the right flowers, you are almost guaranteed a hummingbird will visit your garden to seek out your nectar source(s).  Hummingbirds and the flowers they pollinate evolved together.  So examining the specific characteristics and needs of the hummingbird will help pinpoint the perfect hummingbird flowers.

The Bill

The long, slender, tubular, pointed bill of the hummingbird is usually straight or curved downward.  Each species has a different bill length, shape and coloration.  But each is designed for reaching deep down into narrow, tubular floral openings to reach the floral nectary.  And the hummingbird tongue extends beyond the length of the bill.  Attached to the bird’s tongue is a pair of bony coils called the hyoid apparatus which enables the hummingbird to extend their tongues at great lengths and to pull it back. The hummingbird tongue is deeply split at the tip; and when the bird feeds, the tip is folded into a tube.  Nectar is neither sucked up nor pumped up by the tongue.  Instead, the nectar is held in the tubular portion of the tongue and swallowed upon the return of the tongue to the bird’s mouth.  Even insects found inside flowers can be extracted by the tongue and saliva.  Certain species have specialized fringes of tiny bristles at the edges of the tongue tip for collecting insects from flowers.


Hummingbirds feed on approximately 1,500 flowers daily, requiring that they have easy-access to nectar sources.  Hummingbirds tend to have a preference for flowers growing on the exterior of plants, particularly hanging, pendant flowers, as well as flowers that are arranged around the stem with tubes pointing outward or upward.   These flowers are more accessible to the hummingbird.  Since hummingbirds seldom perch to feed, their wings are continuously in motion, and exterior, hanging, pendant flowers ensure that the hovering, feeding hummingbird will not strike its wings while feeding and maneuvering amongst the flowers.   Bees and butterflies require a landing platform for a perch to feed on flower nectar.  Hummingbird flowers are designed without landing platforms.  Often the petals of hummingbird flowers curve backward or downward or the stamens and stigmas protrude ensuring that only hummingbirds have access to the flowers’ nectar. 


Hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of all warm-blooded creatures except the shrew. Hummingbird bodies function at extremely high speeds, and their high energy consumption means they need to eat approximately every 10 minutes during the day.  Hummingbirds seek out food sources that are heavy nectar producers.   Not all nectar- producing flowers are equal at providing nectar.  Flowers with clusters of small blossoms offer droplets of nectar.  Flowers that offer a larger quantity of nectar can be recognized by their tubular shapes and the stamens extending well past the floral tube’s opening.

 Eye for Color

The color red is the strongest hummingbird magnet.  Red grabs the eye of the hummingbird.  Since red is complementary to green, the red flowers stand out from green foliage, getting the flowers noticed even from a distance.  Hummingbirds are most attracted to big splashes of their favorite color, not just to single flowers.  But the hummingbird gardener should not restrict their choices to only red flowers.  The hummingbird will certainly visit their favorite colors first, but other colors of flowers also offer nectar to hummingbirds.  Once the hummingbird finds the nectar, color does not matter.

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Growing Bearded Irises from Seed

There are a number of different methods of planting iris seeds.  The easiest method is to plant them outdoors in a sunny location in rows.  The soil should be prepared the same as that prepared for planting iris rhizomes.  Seeds should be planted 1 inch apart and three to four times their diameter deep.  In colder climates, deeper planting is recommended to prevent the heaving of seeds out of the ground from freezes and thaws.  Each row should be clearly labeled, and only a very light mulch may be applied and removed in the spring.

Iris seeds may also be started indoors and grown in a greenhouse, sunroom, or on a bright windowsill.  The seeds can be potted up in November in clean plastic pots with drainage holes.  Used pots should be sanitized with a 10 percent chlorine bleach solution.  Seeds are planted at the same depth as those planted outdoors.    A 4-inch pot can be planted with 20 iris seeds if care is taken to transplant the seedlings before crowding becomes an issue.  The potting soil should be thoroughly moistened. Label each pot, insert into a plastic bag, and place in refrigerator for six weeks.  Another alternative is to place the pots outdoors in a cold frame to prevent the pots from freezing.

The seedlings will sprout in the spring, and will have matured sufficiently to no longer be dependent on the endosperm by the time they have grown 4-6 inches in height.  Potted irises will need to be transplanted into a prepared bed, and the sprouted seedlings started in the bed will need to be spaced at least 1 foot apart.  Foliage is not cut back on iris seedlings.  The seedlings will undergo shock at the time of transplanting, so overcast days or cool evenings are the best times to transplant iris seedlings. 

The seedlings will grow rapidly, and will often bloom the following spring after germination.

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Attract Hummingbirds to Your Garden

The most successful hummingbird gardens attract hummingbirds with a combination of feeders and bright, vivid floral displays of red, pink, or orange, purple, blue, and yellow nectar-filled flowers.  This combination not only attracts more hummingbirds, but it also encourages some to stay.  It is important to select plants that will bloom successively, beginning early in the spring and continuing through fall.  For instance, planting an early spring bloomer such as red-flowering currant will attract migrating hummingbirds.  Planting summer bloomers such as bee balm, red hot poker, fuchsia, foxgloves, and coral bells may encourage hummingbirds to stay in your garden.  Late summer and fall bloomers such as cardinal flowers, scarlet sage and phlox will attract fall migrating hummingbirds.  Providing trees and shrubs in your garden for shelter and perching also helps attract hummingbirds.  

If needed, add trees to your garden, and then plant annuals, perennials, shrubs, and vines to fill in the bare spots.  There is always a way to add bright hummingbird flowering plants to any garden.  Make the most of potted plants, window boxes, and hanging baskets.  Vines can be trained to grow up non-flowering trees, trellises, and fences. Use vines and shrubs to create visual barriers to distinguish one feeding territory from another.  Effective strategies to discourage aggressive hummingbirds from dominating or monopolizing your garden is to place two to three feeders in your garden, at least six feet apart or cluster them together.

It cannot be over stressed about the importance of protecting hummingbirds from poisoning through the use of insecticides and fungicides, especially systemic products.  These poisons may be absorbed by the plant and be consumed by the hummingbirds through the nectar.  Avoid the use of insecticides and fungicides!

To the delight of hummingbird gardeners, hummingbirds will return year after year to gardens that are designed to provide lots, and lots of food.  Enjoy!

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What to Do With a Bearded Iris Seed Pod

After pollen has been placed on the stigmatic lip of the bearded iris seed parent, the pollen grains must then sprout and grow a long, hollow tube down into the ovary where the ovules, or potential seeds, are fertilized.  If the cross was successful, then approximately three days after pollination, the ovary will begin to swell.  If the cross was not successful, then given a few more days, the ovary will turn yellow, shrink, and drop off.  

The successfully fertilized ovary will continue growing larger through the summer.  When the bearded iris seed pod ripens, it will begin to turn yellow or brown and crack open at the top, revealing brown and glossy seeds ready to be harvested.  If you made a lot of bearded iris crosses, it may be necessary to identify the cross and collect the seeds separately in envelopes.  Each cross should be recorded when made in a journal or notebook.  The first cross made in 2011 would be recorded as 2011-1.  Following the cross number record the name of the bearded iris seed parent X the name of the bearded iris pollen parent.  Tags with this information should be attached to the seed parent’s bloom stalk just below the ovary at the time of fertilization.  Additional information to include in your journal or notebook would be the quantity of seeds collected from each cross.  Eventually, each seedling will receive its own number; i.e., 2011-1-5, meaning the fifth seedling of the first cross in 2011! 

The iris seeds can be planted outdoors in a well-prepared sunny bed or they can be started indoors in greenhouses, sun rooms or on a bright sunny windowsill.

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Create Your Own Irises!

It is possible for even amateurs to create their own irises by hybridizing!  It really is easy because irises are easily pollinated, the seed sets readily, and it is even easy to grow the seed. You never know if your creation might be something remarkable.  Although hybridizers rely on genetics in determining parental rules of inheritance and compatibility, a basic knowledge of the mechanics of fertilization is all that is really necessary for the amateur.

There are two sets of chromosomes in every iris cell except the pollen and ovule.  The genes on the chromosomes determine all the characteristics of the iris, i.e., size, color, form, how it will grow, number of buds, branch spread, reactions to disease, etc.  Both the male sexual stamen and the female ovary are found in each flower.  The sexual organs each have half the chromosomes; thus, when pollinization occurs, the pollen from one flower unites with the ovule of another flower, and the new combination of genes results in the possibility of creating different plants within the developing seed of the cross.

A very simple method of hand pollinating is to use tweezers to remove the stamen from the selected male pollen parent.  The stamen is ready when it is split open, revealing the pollen grains.  The pollen grains may be pale blue, white, or yellow in color.  Lifting the top of the style crest on the selected female parent reveals the wet, sticky-looking stigma.  Very gently pull the stamen across the stigma, depositing pollen grains on the stigma.  Repeat the process on the other two stigmas.

Within no time, you will be collecting your ripened seed pods and planting your iris seed.

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The Beauty and Function of the Iris Flower

The beauty of the iris bloom is captivating; and we are all desirous of owning the latest hybridized beauty.  Seldom do we consider nature’s design in the function of these beautiful flowers.  Flowers are specialized in shape and are designed to ensure that pollen grains are transferred to pollinators in their search for the nectar attractant. The genus Iris belongs to Iridaceae, a large family with some 200 flowering plant species with flowers consisting of parts in sets of three.  The three-part iris flowers can form either singly or severally on branches of the flower stalks.  Each iris flower is made up of six segments, three upright standards and three downward falls. The standards serve as colorful banners to attract pollinators, and the falls serve as landing pads for pollinating insects.   One or more iris buds are enveloped within two modified leaves called spathes.  The spathes may be papery or thicker in structure.  The standards and falls make up what is called the perianth. The six petals grow from a perianth tube, the bottom of which consists of the flower’s ovary. 

The Male Organs of the Iris Flower

  • ·Stamens are the pollen-bearing male organs of the iris flower.
  • ·Anthers bear the pollen grains and are located at the top of the stamens.  The anthers excrete nectar at their base.
  • ·Filaments are the stems of the stamens. 

The stamens are located under the style and facing the claw of the branches.  Three style branches also grow from the perianth tube.  These style branches arch over the anthers. 

The Female Organs of the Iris Flower 

  • ·Perianth Tube surrounds the pistils and connects the ovaries with the perianth.
  • ·Pistils are the female organs of the iris flower consisting of stigma, style, and ovary.
  • ·Stigma is the sticky top of pistil serving as receptive surface for pollen grains
  • ·Style is the stalk of the pistil, between the stigma and the ovary, through which the pollen tube grows.  The style connects the ovary with the style, which is positioned opposite the falls.
  • ·Style Arms are the small stiff portions of the bloom extending over the beard.

 ·Style Crests are two little “wings” or fringe on the ends of the style arms that shelter the stigma.  Gently lifting the end of the style crest causes separation to reveal the receptive stigmatic lips.  Located underneath this is the anther.  The stigma is the ridge or lip located at the top of the undersurface of the style arm, and it is here that pollen grains must be deposited to begin the pollination process.

  • ·Ovary is the enlarged base of the pistil containing the ovule.
  • ·Ovule become seeds upon fertilization.
  • ·Hafts are located at the base of the falls and standards where they begin narrow near the center where they connect to the stem of the flower. 

Located near the extremity on the underside of the style branch is the stigmatic surface through which the iris flower is fertilized.  A tunnel is formed with the style arms representing the roof of the tunnel and the hafts of the falls representing the floor of the tunnel.  The stigma has a downward trajectory, and at the mouth of the tunnel, located along the roof are the anthers.  On bearded species, there is a line of colored hairs located on the central line of the falls at the very heart of the flower.  These colored hairs are called the beard which either matches the flower color or can be a contrasting shade. These are nectar guides which direct pollinators toward the nectar source.  A patch of contrasting color surrounding the beard, often white or yellow, is called the signal.

The form, color, and aroma of the iris flower combine to attract pollinators to the iris flower.  The beard, signal, and structure of the falls both attract pollinators and provide a landing platform for them.  When insects or hummingbirds reach into the nectar bearing tube of the flower’s stamens, they pick up pollen grains when brushing by the pollen-bearing anther.  When visiting another flower for nectar, the pollinator brushes by the wet stigma and transfers pollen grains.

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