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Between Iris

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 6 September 2002

A bed of hybrid bearded iris lights up my front yard for a month in spring. But after that, it looks pretty dreary: it needs something else besides the iris.

One year, self-seeded johnny jump-ups took over after the iris bloomed. They grew leggy, but the stiff iris leaves held them up, and the bed became a cottage garden of the colorful little faces. By August, however, they had more brown seedpods on them than flowers; so I cut them back. In subsequent years, they haven't done so well; it's been too dry. (The iris, which need very well-drained soil, actually like to go dry during the middle of the summer when they're dormant.)

Volunteer rose campion have persisted well: its first year, this plant stays low, in gray-green rosettes that make a nice ground cover between the iris. The second year, it starts out low while the iris bloom, then sends up a fantastic latticework of thin, stiff, silver flower stems, practically leafless, carrying many one-inch, day-glo magenta flowers for weeks after the iris are done. By the end of August they too are rather brown; I cut down the flower stems and sprinkle the seeds around to make sure I keep them coming.

Scabiosa (pincushion flower) likes dry soil. Like the rose campion, scabiosa holds its flowers above the foliage on long, leafless stems — except these arc around in crazy curves. On the plants I'd seen, the foliage was not so low as the campion's but still not too tall or bushy to crowd the iris leaves. So I planted a creamy yellow variety (S. columbaria ochroleuca) — and it loved the location. Too well: the plant got huge; so the iris around it lacked sun and the air circulation they need to control fungus.

Some bloody cranesbill also did too well there ...but one of the prostrate varieties might work. Four-inch tall dwarf beardtoungue (Penstemon hirsutus pygmaeus) is a good height, and looks good late in the season. Its two-tone purple flowers come right after the iris, but its mats of deep-green leaves, with their hint of purple, stay glossy and full of life through heat and drought. It's also self-seeding nicely.

Sempervivum (hens-and-chicks)? Low-growing sedums or thymes? It's a tricky balance, finding plants that will thrive but still be good neighbors in a mixed planting.

(That scabiosa in the picture is a first-year seedling of the one that got huge. The big one had such a deep root system it was too hard to get out from around the iris roots in any shape to transplant: it went on the compost pile. To get one I could transplant, I let the seedling grow two months, then moved it right after I photographed it.)

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© Copyright 2002 Catherine Holmes Clark