Heirloom roses don’t have the prettiest legs.
The shrubs are knobby and bare beneath the knees. Previously, I’ve underplanted my collection of heirloom roses with daffodils and crocuses for spring, but when those blooms are done and the foliage flops on the ground, roses need pretty skirts to carry them into summer.
Mixed planting — incorporating roses into perennial borders, is effective, but the roses have matured and squeezed out their companions. The cold-hardy Gallica “R. mundi,” suckers like mad and has become a garden bully.
This season, I’ll clean the beds and prune, then plant fragrant lilies and bearded irises amongst the roses. At the fabled English estate Sissinghurst at Kent, Vita Sackville-West loved the look of bearded irises with her beloved roses. She particularly enjoyed yellow irises for contrast with dark red and scarlet roses.
Bearded irises grow from rhizomes, a modified stem that grows at or just below the soil surface. Rhizones are shallowly planted in the soil, so won’t disturb rose roots. Irises make good rose companions because both plants need 6 to 8 hours of sun and well-drained soil.
Presciently – or perhaps just conveniently, the National Garden Bureau has declared 2020 the “year of the iris.” There are three main types of irises: Bearded, beardless and Dutch. Each has distinct characteristics, but all are easy to grow. Each iris sports two types of petals, the “standard” that stands upright and includes the top three petals, and the “falls,” or lower three petals that curve downwards.
Beardies have fuzzy beards on each of the falls. There are tall bearded, miniature tall bearded, border bearded, intermediate bearded, standard dwarf and miniature dwarf bearded irises, each with different habits and bloom times. All perform best with low-nitrogen fertilizer applied in early spring and after blooming, according to NGB. Divide clumps every two or three years.
Beardless irises — Siberian, Japanese, Louisianas and spurias — can be naturalized in gardens. Rhizomes arrive in the fall bundled in damp paper and inside a plastic bag to prevent drying. Unpack rhizomes and soak roots overnight, then plant immediately. They need to be in the ground four weeks before the first hard frost.
Plant in full to partial sun with rhizomes 1 inch below the soil; Japanese rhizomes should be 2 inches below the soil.
Fertilize in spring when plants are a few inches high. Japanese irises like a second feeding before blooming. Divide these every three years.
Hardy Dutch irises grow from bulbs that can be planted in spring and fall. Plant in groups in sun to partial shade. Flowers appear in late spring to early summer.
Celebrate the year of the iris
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