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The Dwarf Bulbous Iris Problem


This blog arises from a question by Alextb last week and some of the interesting comments that came up after I had dared to challenge Owdboggy about a statement suggesting that dwarf, bulbous irises are short lived. I was gob-smacked to hear GoYers say that they could not keep these essentials of the spring garden for more than a year.

Iris ‘Alida’ with Crocus tommasinianus
So in London, West Midlands, SW England and Arizona they are treated as annuals whilst in the north of Scotland they seem to live forever! On Saturday the SRGC had a one day conference in Dunblane and I was able to put this question to a friend up from London who also happens to be one of the leading bulb distributors in Europe. I asked him if he grew theses irises in his north London garden and he said yes he did and, like you GoYers he found that they were generally short lived.

Iris ‘George’ (top) and a slightly different iris that I call ‘Not George’! This must be a seedling of some sort that was in some compost that I tipped out here. It started as one surprise flower several years ago and has quickly multiplied up. A further observation is that ‘Not George’ was the first Iris to start flowering in the garden – in January!
Why, what is the difference between other GoY gardens and ours. I cannot believe that it is down to the skill of the gardener; our bulbs are just popped into the soil, at a moderate depth, and left to get on with it. Nothing in the gardening literature refers to a short lifespan for these bulbs, apart from the notorious Iris danfordiae, and I had never heard any comment like the above – hence my amazement last week.

Iris ‘Joyce’ (top) and ‘Katherine Hodgkin’. All these pictures were taken yesterday.
I suppose that the most obvious difference between our gardens is a matter of geography and climate, yet the bulbs originate in countries like Turkey, Iran and Iraq so should be happier with the dry summers of southern England than with my damper one.

Finally, a quick peak at irises inside the bulb house. From the back we have Iris Harmony; Alida; Joyce, then at the front the less common Iris ‘Sewan Lake’ and Iris hyrcana. All will ‘do’ in the open garden but I like to keep a few in pots to enjoy in the bad weather.
I would like to carry out a small survey on this. I would like all of you reading this blog to respond by saying which county you live in and giving your experience of growing dwarf iris bulbs. Maybe we can draw a simple map to show where they do well and where they do less well.

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Very interesting blog Bulbaholic, like many others I am not successful with the dwarf varieties, tried many times over the years but they do not return, shame because yours look lovely..
Mainly clay soil,not sure if that makes a difference..
I am in Lincs, edge of the borders with Rutland,Cambs and Northants....

23 Feb, 2011


I have a small group of five bulbs growing in a pot ,this is their second year. They are left to die back in my wild area,they get no special attention,I just move them and their pot when they are finished flowering.They are just the plain and simple variety,I am in Newcastle.

23 Feb, 2011


I have always grown them in pots, and they never come back the following year.
Last year I planted them in the garden, and guess what - they are coming up this year again. Not blooming yet, but it has been much colder than usual and things are slow.
I'm looking forward to seeing them.
I live near Ammanford in the east of Carmarthenshire

23 Feb, 2011


I'm near Hull in east yorkshire and have got a clump of purple gem in the ground [15yrs now]. I have Harmony in a pot for 10 yrs [just top dress the soil every year after flowering]. I've had Katherine Hodgkin in a pot for 3 seasons. I have other clumps planted last year all over the garden and they all seem to be coing up. all except I dandiflora. Why are they so poor at overwintering then?

Like you BA I was amazed at the idea they are short lived. I do plant them on a layer of grit does that make a difference?

23 Feb, 2011


all these lovely pictures are making me whant some now...when is the best time so plant them?
i have always associated irises with wet boggy soil by ponds and so was cofused when a few given to me (yellow flag and a clumpforming summer purple one) seem to be doing well in my dry stoney soil...

23 Feb, 2011


BJS in Bristol.
It is probably a lie to say none return a second year a few do and that is about it,in the past I have replanted in the area where they were and all you find is the outer nets which encompass the bulb,so rotted or shriveled i would say most likely rotted as i am prone to a lot of wet after they flower,and again in autumn.My latest batch last autumn came from Kevock gardens ,not that means any thing as they buy them in.They were of the variety Katharine Hodgkin of the 50 purchased about 30 have come up,but this one i think may need a summer baking
Which i canot guarantee also i think it is not true Reticulatae.A.E.Bowles crossed it with something else.
You have not asked my opinion on it but for what its worth a right washed out colour will not bother again,Will stick with R.Pauline

23 Feb, 2011


Hi Bulb. I live in Leicestershire, on the South Derbyshire border. Garden in low land/frost pocket. My irises have survived :) only their 2nd year though. The ones in pots are in full bloom, looks like they've all come up and the ones in the ground (clay) are up but not yet in flower.

23 Feb, 2011


Most of the irises I planted last year (in a sunny area) have come up again. I had some in another garden some years ago (in part shade) and they gradually disappeared on me. I blamed badgers / foxes / squirrels which ate the nearby dwarf tulips.
Both gardens in Cornwall, very well drained.

23 Feb, 2011


I'm in east Berkshire. I had 'Katherine Hodgkin' for several years but lost it when the alpine bed got a makeover the autumn before last. My iris reticulata were planted in 2000 in ordinary soil in full sun and are still going strong (I posted a photo of them in flower not long ago). I think I read that they do better in heavy soil; in light soils, the bulbs split after flowering and take a few years to bulk up to flowering size again. Don't know whether this is true or not though

23 Feb, 2011


Iris are back for 3rd year in places some have not, but we do have badgers, squirrels which do a lot of digging and eating of bulbs, the one's that do come up are sunny/shade and dry places (by a big ash tree)

24 Feb, 2011


Bulbaholic ...
Is your soil type acidic ?
Does it have lots of grit/drainage ?
Bulbs planted in full sunshine ?

24 Feb, 2011


I planted some dwarf iris about 3 years ago. They have come up every year since. Some are planted in a sunny rockery area, and some in a part sun / part shade area. The ones in part shade are beginning to flower now but the ones on the rockery are a fair bit slower.

I live just south east of Brussels and have acid, heavy clay soil.

24 Feb, 2011


Thanks for all the responses. I have just made a quick sketch map and put the various comments on it. I have come to the definite conclusion that the results are completly inconclusive!!! Adding these comments to those of Alextb last week indicates that some gardens will grow them whilst others won't. We have a range of soil types, pH's, sun/shade positions and we still get mixed results.
Our own soil is a light silt with a small clay element but has been heavily modified with added humus and grit over many years. It has a pH of 7 and some bulbs are in full sun, others in shade. Because the sun is so low in the sky here, some parts of the garden don't see direct sunlight until May!
So, I don't know why some of us are successful with these bulbs and others not so. Any further observations from anyone?

24 Feb, 2011


The general consensus in Arizona is that the longer and colder the winter, the longer-lived they are. They are generally used as annual color below 6000 feet elevation, here, and become more perennial the higher you go. I wouldn't be surprised if they actually originate in high mountains in the Middle East.

24 Feb, 2011


Planted some in a sink and some in pots last year so will now see what happens we are in Hampshire.

24 Feb, 2011


I have also read they need to dry out each summer to flower again the following year (which might rule out growing them in the Lake District?) - lol

24 Feb, 2011


Doesn't explain the difference between the south of England and the north of Scotland, though Andrew. For every arguement on this thread I can think of a counter from someone else. :-(

25 Feb, 2011


Perhaps they're like some other plants (snowdrops and lily of the valley come to mind) that only grow where they "want" to. Awkward little whatsits!
And it's not really an answer to your question BA.

25 Feb, 2011


No, but it is the only one that I can think of, Beattie.

25 Feb, 2011


I read your blog with hope in my heart that i would find the secret of planting the mini iris i brought home from Homebase in Chippenham. Alas it will be pot luck again. I live in West Lothian and have never been successful with them when I planted them as bulbs. The Harmony ones I bought were greatly reduced and seemed like a bargain even if they only survive this year. One or two are flowering and a few still to open. I'll try and remember to let you know if they come again next year. I wonder if it has more to do with what they are alongside, companion planting if you like. Great blog.

2 Mar, 2011


I have to report that I have some second year dwarf iris for the first time ever. The harmony mentioned above was planted in my new raised beds which are filled with everything and anything I could scrape together to fill them up. I would say it is free draining but subjected to high winds and not too much sun throughout the year. i also planted 20 bulbs of iris danfordiae in pots. Not all flowered as they were only planted on 24.1.11 but some have already appeared again this year. you can see them in my latest blog. How is the map coming along and what do you use in your bulb bowls? That might point the way to a solution.

27 Feb, 2012


I am pleased that you are having some success, Scotsgran, and that some of your dwarf iris have made a return appearance. The map, haha, showed a random scattering of success/failure across the British Isles. Nothing at all conclusive.
I do NOT use bowls for any bulbs but pots with drainage. Neither do I use fiberous 'bulb compost'. All my bulbs are grown in a soil based compost of loam, leafmould and grit with a bit of bonemeal as a long term feed. Those in pots are allowed to dry out in the summer, though the ones in the garden have no protection from the rain.

27 Feb, 2012


Thanks Bb. My mistake - bulb bowls - when I can see you use clay pots with drainage holes in them. Maybe the secret lies in not how much water falls on them but a fine balance between whether the soil becomes waterlogged or is free draining.
My small success will encourage me to plant more dwarf iris.

27 Feb, 2012


Have just read all this BA, very interesting. Am wondering whether the answer lies partly in how much disturbance they get. Yours look stunning, and I wonder if you leave the areas they are in alone in the summer? I have trouble with lots of small bulbs because I am always prodding and poking around, looking for a space for something else. Doesn't explain the rotting away that some have reported though. Just a thought.

8 Feb, 2013


Just to add a spanner in the works, I live in a temperate climate (Melbourne, Australia) and I have no problems with getting my reticulata irises to grow and multiply every year. I only grow them in pots and I lift the bulbs every year. I keep the dry bulbs in a shed over summer where they have to cope with temperatures up to 40 degrees C. From what I have read about them, keeping them dry over summer is important (too wet and it won't flower) and they like a bit of summer heat (obviously it doesn't have to be as high as 40 though, but such high heat doesn't seem to cause any problems).

Each iris "Harmony" bulb produces 3 - 4 flowering size bulbs for me - I give them away to family & friends. I don't experience any snow or even frost in winter - the temperature here almost never drops below freezing. I'm only 390 feet above sea level.

19 Apr, 2013

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