Archives for posts with tag: Siberian irises

We spent a few hours yesterday (before heading up to Stonecrop Gardens; see March 22, 2014) and again today, cleaning up the ornamental gardens. Saturday’s session was particularly enjoyable because the temperature quickly rose into the 50s. One or two dark clouds passed by, trailing a sprinkle of light rain, but otherwise it was sunny and warm.

Today was a different story as the weather returned to a more wintery state, including a chilling wind.

We cleared away the scruffy remnants of the Russian sage, penstemon (a variety of foxglove), black-eyed Susans, Siberian irises, and hostas. In the main ornamental garden beds, Rachel pruned the hibiscus (we have three) and some young lilacs. Together, we tackled the Japanese maple, a gift from the mason (and natural gardener) who constructed our stone walls and stairs.

We’ve been putting this off for a few years now and I hope that we did not wait too long. The maple had grown taller than we wanted, more upward than outward, and was threatening to obstruct the view from the patio that overlooks it. We clipped its upper branches and the skyward pointing portions of its perimeter branches. It looks a bit awkward now (most things do immediately after pruning) but its appearance should improve once the leaves sprout.

Up front in the hosta beds, we had a bit more work to do. I’m not sure when we last weeded this area (mid-summer, perhaps?) but it was in dire need of it today, especially the bed to the left of the stone staircase that leads from our front yard up to the labyrinth. The grade is steep here and the plantings a mixed bag. We’ve been slowly making a transition to flowering bulbs and groundcovers such as sedum and lily of the valley but mostly, the plants here are unwanted—weeds, by definition—and we removed many of them.

Weeding is very satisfying—the difference between before and after can be striking—but it is also back-breaking. After two hours in the bracing cold we were worn out. The ornamental beds are now clear of old growth and we were heartened by the signs of spring—snowdrops and crocuses at long last!—that are slowly emerging.

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One of the ways I know that spring has arrived is that for the next few weeks, the sun will shine directly through my office windows. With no leaves on the trees to filter it, the bright light makes it difficult to see the screen of my computer but the solar heat on my face feels great.

Another indicator that spring fever has hit is my desire to get out into the garden and start doing something. The draw is getting stronger every day as more snow melts to reveal another task that needs attending to. This was a rough and stormy winter and consequently, the yard is in disarray. Order must be restored! In other words, it is time for spring cleaning.

Most of our work over the next week or two will be in the ornamental gardens. We don’t do a lot of cutting back in the fall—usually, only enough to facilitate leaf removal. In particular, we leave the black-eyed Susans and butterfly bushes in their bare-branched state to provide decoration and keep the garden from looking too empty. It is pretty, especially against the neutral background of winter white (i.e., snow), but as a result, the gardens are filled with dead wood.

To make matters worse, heavy snow came early this year and buried some of the plants we might otherwise have tidied up in the fall. These include the hostas, Siberian and bearded irises, and day lilies. In other years when we have left them, the faded leaves look crumpled and haggard by spring; this year, being crushed by snow for three months has done nothing to improve their appearance.

The first order of business, then, will be to trim everything back to make room for new growth. Clearing away last year’s detritus will also allow the sun’s warmth to activate the bulbs and rhizomes that have been lying dormant since the fall. In fact, small, spiky leaves are already poking up amongst the matted clumps of spent bearded iris leaves and I spy, with my little eye, a crocus peeking out through the cloud of desiccated Russian sage bushes.

I have some reservations about jumping back into it. Yard work is physically demanding and can be overwhelming (it sometimes feels as if the entire world needs tidying up after winter). But I know that it will also be immensely satisfying, a literal cleaning of the slate as we start the new gardening year.

Point of view can make all the difference.  Where one person might see something worthy only of the trash, another person will see a prize to be treasured.

Last fall, we used a hand-held gardening fork to help divide Siberian iris rhizomes (see September 15, 2012).  During the operation, which was quite physically demanding, the v-shaped bar which formed the outer tines of the fork broke off, leaving only the center tine connected to the handle.

As far as I was concerned, that was the end of the fork.  I tossed the v-shaped bar in the dumpster but, having packrat tendencies, returned the now one-tined fork (which some might consider a fork no more) to the bin with the rest of the hand tools.  There it has resided for the last eight months; I haven’t given it another thought since.

And I probably wouldn’t have thought about it again except that this spring has produced a bumper crop of dandelions.  They have popped up everywhere in dense clumps of intense yellow flowers which, despite an interim lawn mowing, have morphed into airy white seed heads.

As with other weeds, we leave the dandelions in the lawn alone.  They certainly do not merit the use of an herbicide (not even poison ivy does, actually; we just carefully pull it out) and, in general, are not worth bothering with at all.  Theoretically, we could eat their leaves (they are delicious raw or sautéed in bacon fat) and if they continue to spread, perhaps we will start harvesting them.

Dandelions in the ornamental gardens are another matter, however, and this is where a different point of view comes in.  Where I saw the garden fork as broken and functionless, Rachel saw it as a potential dandelion-removal tool.  Apparently, it resembles other weeding tools she has seen in catalogs or used in the past and she thought the broken fork might be perfect for the job.

This morning, Rachel put her hypothesis to the test.  The ground was soft and moist after yesterday’s rain, ideal for weeding.  She pressed the end of the fork into the soil, adjacent and parallel to a dandelion’s tap root, and pulled it upward while rotating it slightly.  The tool’s action released the root from the surrounding soil and she was able to pull the weed out entirely.  Success!

I could say that I knew the broken fork would come in handy one day but no, I did not foresee this.  Rachel gets all of the credit for repurposing the fork into an effective weeding tool that will probably get more use now than when it was a fork.

I wonder what other abandoned items I have in the workshop that she might be able to put back into service?

It seems that you can not use too much deer repellent.  Like voting, I started spraying early and often and was prepared to protect the lilies, lilac and hostas before they had sent out their new spring growth.  I had hoped to deprive the deer of any of our delicious baby greens this year.

But the deer would not be denied.  Instead of going elsewhere for their daily salad, they started nibbling on the Siberian irises.  No matter that they’ve never eaten them before and that irises are not usually attractive to them.  Because there was nothing better available, they settled for the irises.  I guess I can’t blame them.  This is a case of the deer deciding that the irises were good enough which is keeping in the spirit of this blog.

I’m not happy about it but it has led me to a theory that I will call the Conservation of Munching.  Regardless of the steps that one might take to prevent deer from making lunch of a prized flower or vegetable, another equally precious plant will present itself to the deer to be eaten.  If there are no particularly valuable plants available, the deer will move on the more mundane or common things in the garden.  It might not be their first choice or even their second, but they will settle on something.

It’s not unlike the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the one that states that entropy never decreases.  In fact, it might be a corollary.  After all, a nibbled plant exists in a lower state of order than an unnibbled one.  It’s just a part of the overall theory of life on this planet as hypothesized by Murphy.  Or, put another way, if something can be munched by deer, it will be.

I have often noted that daily changes in the garden are not always readily noticeable but that after our prolonged absence, the accumulated changes are immediately apparent.  I still believe this but after spending the last few days in Boston and seeing very little change on our return, I would add that it is mainly true during the more active portion of the growing season.

It’s the end of the season and many of the plants are already gone (most notably the cucumbers and zucchini) or winding down.  The latter is particularly true of the tomatoes which have not made any significant progress for a couple of weeks now.  All of the tomatoes that were green mid-week, before we left town, are still green today and showing no signs of turning color.  Even the few tomatoes that had already reddened are no redder now.  There just isn’t enough direct sun during the day.

On the other hand, there are signs of life in the garden.  The string beans are getting larger and the stalks are still producing blossoms.  The radish seedlings, just two weeks old, continue to develop (although it is extremely unlikely that they will reach maturity by next week, as promised by the seed packets).  And the lettuce patch continues to surprise us with its sustained growth (even if the older leaves have become slightly bitter).

Over in the ornamental garden, the divided and replanted Siberian irises are sending up new growth, the sight of which was very reassuring after their complete upheaval.  I don’t know whether this is normal (I don’t remember seeing it before) or a response to the late warm weather or to being separated.  But I am happy (and relieved) to see that we did not kill them off.

Believe it or not (I’m not sure I did), we still had not replanted all of the Siberian irises after our last root-dividing session (see September 15, 2012).  There is no more room in the ornamental garden and after scouting around (again) for suitable new locations, I ended up back at the strip of weeds next to the stone wall where we replanted some irises two weeks ago.  Clearly, this was the place for them.

After two hours of labor that can be summed up by a single punctuated word—rocks!—we are finally finished with the Siberian irises.  When combined with the bearded irises, which we received from friends in exchange for a share of our Siberian ones and which we planted near the patio two weeks ago, we have done everything we need to do with irises for the next few years.

Now, if I was a more conscientious and energetic gardener, I would move on to the lilies and hostas, both of which could benefit from the same treatment we gave the irises.  But I’m not (and am feeling lazy) so they will have to wait.  Maybe next year…

At the end of the day on Labor Day (see September 3, 2012), we were left with a tarp-full of divided but unplanted Siberian irises and two large clumps of irises waiting to be separated.  We were hoping to wake up one morning and find that the remaining work had been done but two weeks later, nothing has changed.  I guess the garden elves have headed north to get an early start on the Christmas season.

We decided that if we didn’t get to it today, it would not get done before winter.  We started by scouting a location for the already-divided plants (they have been out of the ground for two weeks and we wanted to be sure to replant them before we ran out of energy).  We do not have many full-sun locations on our property and there are not that many partially sunny spots either.  After a tour of the possible locations, we selected the narrow strip of ground between the road and a stone wall that marks the edge of our property.

Nearest to the house, the area is paved with gravel; we use it as a pull-out for parking cars.  Beyond that, the border is mostly weed-covered with two or three clusters of daffodils providing a small (and brief) burst of color in spring.

It is also, of course, very rocky.  In fact, it is literally between a rock (wall) and a hard place (the road).  As I started to dig, my shovel was met with the usual clang of resistance.  The rocks were densely packed but luckily, they were not wedged in too tightly.  As I removed each one, I tossed it onto the top of the stone wall.  Two hundred years ago, this is how the wall was originally constructed.

After a half hour of digging, we had cleared an area about 10 feet in length and 18 inches wide.  Despite its rockiness and less-than-ideal location, the soil here is dark and rich.  Apparently, many years of weed growth have not depleted the soil of its organic matter.

Rachel quickly set the divided irises into the excavation and we covered them with loose soil.  As a final step, I sprinkled the ground with a general-purpose fertilizer (to be on the safe side) and watered it in with two cans-full from the hose (which did not quite reach this remote spot).

Next, we moved back to the ornamental garden and the two clumps of irises that remained to be divided.  After our Labor Day experience we knew what had to be done and started right in (we feared that if we stopped to rest, we might lose momentum).  I won’t repeat the details here but we did learn a few important lessons.

First, digging in the garden—even shallow digging—is best done shortly after a rainfall.  When we worked on Labor Day, it had not rained for a week.  The ground was hard and dry and that made the digging difficult and dusty.  Today, after a light rain yesterday, the soil was softer and more cohesive.  Digging still required a lot of effort but it took significantly less hacking with the shovel to get the irises free.

Second, once the clump of irises has been pulled up, trimming their leaves all at once makes separating the roots a lot easier.  On Labor Day, Rachel clipped each divided rhizome individually, a time-consuming last step.  This time around, we used a hedge trimmer to trim all of the irises at once.  Essentially, we gave each clump, still intact, a haircut.

Third, and most significantly, this has to done much more often.  One of the two clumps we divided today was so tightly compacted and so jammed full of rocks and soil that it was next to impossible to split into pieces.  I managed to break the small gardening fork while trying to pry the roots apart and I can understand why some people would be tempted to use a hatchet or axe for the job.  I have heard that some gardeners do this yearly—my hat is off to them—but every two or three years seems like a reasonable interval.

Of course, that last lesson will be the hardest to follow up on.  In two or three years, the irises may not be as compacted as they were today but I will be that much older and less enthusiastic about taking on this onerous chore.

To commemorate Labor Day, we often take on a project that is, well, laborious.  It is not always planned in advance—we do most of our intensive outdoor work on weekends anyway—although we rarely celebrate Labor Day in the traditional way by relaxing and doing nothing.  This year’s back-breaking task:  dividing the Siberian irises.

Why would we want to do this?  Good question.  The irises were a gift from a local stonemason, Mario, who did a lot of work for us about seven years ago.  Part of his work included the formation of our ornamental gardens and when he was done, we had a lot of space to fill.  In addition to being a talented stone worker, Mario has a dark green thumb.  To help get our new gardens started, he brought us many cuttings from his own garden (which is like what you would see at an Italian villa), including the irises, a Japanese maple and sedum (to plant in the crevices of the stone walls he built).

It took a few years for the irises to establish themselves but for the last three years, they have been producing a dense display of purple and white flowers each spring.  The irises are very effective at naturalizing themselves and after seven years have densely filled the areas where we planted them.  However, as their root systems become more and more compacted, they will flower less abundantly.  Typically, Siberian irises form rings of active plants with dead roots at the centers.  Ours were beginning to display this characteristic.

But digging them up, dividing their rhizomes and replanting them ensures that the irises continue to flower profusely.Separating the plants also means that we can spread them out over a larger area (expanding the border that follows the south edge of our main garden, for instance) and transplant them to new locations (along the road, perhaps).  Further, we’ll have enough split rhizomes to share them with our friends in town to whom we promised the plants last year.  We let that season pass before we could get to them so we are overdue.

The task is decidedly labor-intensive and required several steps.  First, we dug up the irises.  Their rhizomes and roots are densely intertwined and form clumps about two feet in diameter.  Removing them is almost as difficult as removing sod but their stems and leaves allowed Rachel to pull up on the irises while I broke the roots free with a shovel.  It took about half an hour of picking and tugging to break each mass free and lug it out of the garden bed.

Next, I broke up the root masses using a small gardening fork and my bare hands.  (Actually, I wore work gloves.)  If we had not let the irises go so long—two to three years is the recommended interval—this part might have required less effort.  But after seven years, the root masses were practically solid.  I used the fork to knock out the trapped soil and rocks and create handholds.  Then, I just grabbed on and pulled.

Slowly and with not a little frustration, I broke small groups of rhizomes free and passed them over to Rachel.  Using shears, she cut off the excess roots and dead portions of the rhizomes, clipped the leaves to a length of about six inches, and stacked the now divided plants neatly on a tarp.  We filled two shopping bags full of irises and delivered them to our friends in the village.

The final step was replanting.  We returned about half of the irises to their starting place and reburying them in the loosened soil was the easiest task of the day.  We spaced them six to eight inches apart and consequently, the area is much less densely-planted than it was when we started.  Given past experience, though, it should fill back in over the next few years.

The remaining half—and the two clumps of irises that we have not yet divided—will have to go somewhere else.  But that is for another labor day (one with a lower case L).