Sunday, May 13, 2012

Fixing the Big Uglies: The Iris Incident

This is the first in a series of posts I'll publish randomly throughout the rest of spring and into summer. They'll detail the garden makeover I began last fall and completed this spring. Each new post will begin with the phrase Fixing the Big Uglies and show before and after pictures.

When I was younger I was one of those irritating and always slightly grimy kids who wanted to know why everything happened the way it did. As I grew older I was able to find my own answers about the physical and natural world and changed my fascination to why people acted the way they did. As curious as I was about the motivators of the people around me, it was my own tendency to stick the wrong plant in the wrong spot that was the most intriguing. Despite my best efforts, I had become a master of misplacement and was forever moving plants from place to place, with the hopes that I would finally get it right. I underestimated the growth potential of trees planted in holes full of compost and the ability of water loving plants to render a wet spot a virtual desert to other plants also competing for moisture. While I may have been interested in the behavior of others, I couldn't even figure out my own.

Several years ago when my massive river birch was but a strappy sapling, I created a bed around it and filled it with hosta and Siberian iris. Were these shade loving iris or sun loving hosta? Nope. I justified the planting location on the rationale that the hosta were planted on the side of the tree that was also shaded by an equally smallish crepe myrtle and therefore would receive more shade while the iris were planted on the side that opened to grass and sunny skies. Did it occur to me that my river birch had branches on both sides of its trunk that would grow long and lanky like a hungry teen in its moist, fertile spot, creating a swath of shade large enough to pitch a small tent under? Nope. As a matter of fact, I felt a bit smug in the juxtaposition of the garden layout and was sure lines of gardeners would form at my gate to see the sun loving iris growing so happily next to shade loving hosta.

The line forms here:

 Aahh! Such beauty! Cramped, anemic hostas in a tiny bed and a sea of iris collapsus,
 the newest shade hating cultivar. 
Refund, please!

Thanks to the water sucking super power of my 'Heritage' river birch, 
this once wet area now rivals the Sahara for sheer dryness.

Fast forward to fall 2010 - The iris have been dug up and the hole filled with compost. In a moment of brilliance, it has finally occurred to me to plant the sun and moisture loving iris in the moist, sunny bed across from the river birch. Extra iris are given to a friend and I wait out winter wondering if the transplants will survive. 

Summer 2011 - The iris poke from the ground like green spaghetti, limp against the sweetspire, shocked at the sun and confused by the moist soil. They grow, weak and flaccid, but do not bloom and I spend the summer avoiding them, choosing to remember the one blossom filled spring before the birch began to race toward the skies, its branches filling the garden with speckled shade. 

Fall 2011 - Perhaps it was the cooler air or time needed to settle their roots, but by fall the iris were erect and tall, sabers of green next to the rotund abundance of the sweetspire. They hadn't collapsed and died but were thriving. If I could make them happy, perhaps I could finally see my garden as it was instead of as I imagined it to be and create the changes that were overdue. Out came the shovel, away went the grass, and a new river birch garden was created.  

Spring 2012

Siberian iris

It was windy when I took this picture but after a week of overcast skies, I went ahead and took a few pictures while the sun was out. This bed, known as the dogwood garden, is across a grass path from the river birch garden. White trumpet lilies, heliopsis, sweetspire, Siberian iris, 'Johnson's Blue' cranesbill geraniums, 'Rotkugel' oregano (in front of the wind blown yarrow), and many other perennials fill this moist, sunny bed.  

Part of this bed receives high filtered sun, while the edge of the bed (not shown in this photo) receives full sun. Phlox, rudbeckia, daylilies, blue mist flower, hosta, balloon flowers, catmint, Persian cornflowers, and variegated iris and sage pilfered from around the garden last fall, are just a few of the perennials that fill this bed. 

I have a family of blue birds nesting in this house. They rarely approach the bird house if I'm on this side of the garden but I'm hoping the babies aren't as shy as the parents.

The river birch is over 30 feet tall. Our yard's natural flood plain begins just outside its drip line. By expanding the garden over this plain, I was able to create a moist, sunny  bed that receives filtered afternoon shade. The area to the right of the birch is filled with plants that can survive dry shade such as epimedium, Bowman's Root, and euphorbia. Two small Peggy Martin climbing roses are beginning to clamber up the fence in the sunniest part of the garden near the gate. 

I added two more hostas this morning. 

Bowman's Root and thalictrum

Dogwood garden and part of the river birch garden


  1. I love how you said, "I had become a master of misplacement." lol

    Your plants are just gorgeous. I'm so glad that the Irises are enjoying their new spot. Your River Berch Garden is lovely, especially your hostas. How adorable (my mom plants hostas as well and I always swoon over them).

    Neato Bluebird. That's awesome that there's a family of them in your garden :-D

  2. Wait, you can't put plants with different light and moisture needs just anywhere? You can't? I surely did and I am having the same issues re-doing several beds that have plants in all the wrong places. So nice to see, in such detail, that I am not alone!

    Those iris collapsus (ha!) now look really good. It's hard to make changes when the transplant process makes everything worse for a while until it settles in. You can't tell if you made the right moves or not at first. You are making great strides in fixing the big uglies, and I am enjoying seeing how it all developed.

  3. Brilliant! I would have followed the same path, sometimes we take a little while to figure things out. Your comments about the River Birch has me thinking about a very wet area in our yard. Perhaps that would be a good solution....maybe. :-)

  4. Glad to hear that the siberian Iris are now thriving, such lovely plants. It's a shame that plants can't tell us beforehand if we're putting them in the wrong place, isn't it?

  5. This looks like a great fix for the uglies. I want one of those River Birches too. I have the perfect spot for it.

  6. I'm glad the Iris is doing well now. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this series!

    I'm glad your ground cherries are doing well. I have one ground cherry seedling, and it's a sad little specimen. :( A lot of my seedlings died when I went away for a week in April (ground cherries and others), and I haven't had a lot of free time this spring to replant and stay on top of things. I hope I don't have a pathetic garden this year.

  7. I'm juggling plants right now and wondering where to put things. It's a hard time trying to figure out how wet or dry the soil will be and how the light will change through the season due to growing plants. I wouldn't say you did so badly. and at least you recognized the problem and corrected it! All my siberian iris I purchased last year died and I'm wondering if I dare try again.

  8. Your garden makeover looks great, and sounds like normal garden evolution to me! I love your plant choices.

  9. I love your River Birch and its flaky bark and how you've changed the two gardens. Sweetbay said it well - garden evolution. I have areas badly in need of the same treatment because sunny areas have become shady as the trees I planted grew bigger (who'd have guessed?).

  10. It looks lovely now. The more plants we gardeners move, the more we learn, right? :)

  11. I always like seeing garden transformations. They always seem to be great improvements. Yours looks fabulous! Hostas always make such a difference in a garden bed. Well done!

  12. Although I said I was leaving the garden to its own devices this year, I moved a large and very heavy clump of ornamental grass. For a couple of years it had been making its corner of the garden look really scruffy and one morning last week I could stand it no longer. It's funny how we get those moments of "this will no longer do."

  13. It is great seeing your before and afters. I was working on a new flowerbed yesterday and I am sure I got half of my plant placement dead wrong. It is how we learn. We make mistakes and then figure out a solution to correct them.


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