Iris pallida variegata Gold has variegated creamy-gold and green foliage and a sweet fragrance.Iris pallida variegata Gold has variegated creamy-gold and green foliage and a sweet fragrance.

Growing Bearded Iris In The Waterwise Garden

by David Salman, High Country Gardens Chief Horticulturist

Growing Bearded Iris is simple, straightforward and easily managed by the beginner gardener or master gardener alike.

The Iris family is a big one that includes numerous species and an uncountable number of hybrid cultivars created by Iris breeders around the world. One of the most widely grown are the Bearded Iris. The "beard' on a bearded Iris refers to the fuzzy growth on the tops of the three "fall" (downward growing) petals that surround the three "standard" (upward growing) petals. They come in a wide array of solid and bi-colored combinations and have been a favorite garden flower for many, many generations here in the US and Europe.

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When and Where To Plant Bearded Iris

Bearded Irises grow well across most of the US (except for the Gulf Coast, Florida and the Deep South). For western gardeners, growing Bearded Iris is quite straightforward, as these tough, durable plants thrive in our dry climates requiring only occasional watering once established. When planted into fast-draining soils with full sun exposure, they are long-lived and multiply nicely to form showy blooming clumps.

Bearded Iris can be planted as potted plants in spring or as bare-root rhizomes in late summer. Be sure to get your bare-root Iris in the ground at least 6 weeks before the first average frost date in your area, to make sure they are established before the ground freezes in winter.

To plant Bearded Iris rhizomes:

  • Dig a 3-to-4-inch thick layer of compost,  a few handfuls of natural soft rock phosphate, and Yum Yum Mix into the top 8-10” of the soil.
  • Plant so that the shoulders of the rhizomes are just above the surface of the soil. Don’t plant them too deep.

Keep Them Blooming with Regular Fertilization

In the garden, Bearded Irises are heavy feeders and need regular fertilization to bloom strongly and multiply. I recommend top dressing with a mix of high-quality compost, Yum Yum Mix, and some soft rock phosphate or bat guano in the spring, and again about a month after they have bloomed. Just scatter several cups of this soil-building mix in a ring around the clumps. Avoid high nitrogen chemical fertilizers, as it degrades the soil over time and promotes leaf growth at the expense of flowering.

In terms of maintenance, the best time to divide your Iris clumps is in August, every 3-5 years.  When they stop blooming or the flowers are sparse, this is an indication that they are crowded and the soil is low in nutrients and needs to be enriched.

Just dig the plants out of the ground, shake off the soil, and cut the rhizomes (fleshy roots) into pieces with a sharp clean garden knife. Be sure to include a fan or two of leaves on each piece of rhizome.  If you have some dusting sulfur, dip the cut ends into it and let the rhizomes dry for a day or two in the shade so the cuts callus over. Replant as outlined above.

Growing Bearded Iris With Great Companion Plants

To complement your colorful bearded Iris flowers, it's advisable to plant other flowering perennial companions that bloom in late spring and enjoy drier soils and full sun.

  • 'Mesa Peach' Blanket Flower (Gaillardia aristata)- The big, peachy-gold petals of 'Mesa Peach' go beautifully with any of the blue and purple Bearded Iris.
  • 'Little Night' European Sage (Salvia sylvestris) is a natural to combine with the yellow, pink, and apricot blooming Iris. 'Little Night' is a compact grower that should be planted in front of the Iris clumps where its deep indigo blue late spring flower spikes offer a stunning color combination and contrasting shape to the ruffled Iris blooms.
  • 'Shimmer' Evening Primrose (Oenothera fremontii) has attractive green turning to silver foliage and bright lemon-yellow flowers to complement the Iris. 'Shimmer' grows to form a low-growing mat of foliage that contrasts nicely in color and shapes with the sword-like Iris leaves.

Here are a few of my favorite Beard Iris cultivars:

'Paul Black' - With dark purple standards and falls and a wonderful bright orange beard, this tall grower should be planted at the back of the border. Nice with other yellow flowered perennials.
'Amarillo' - This glowing deep yellow Iris is a stunner and especially nice planted with blue and purple flowered perennials. Medium sized at 36" in height.
Variegated Sweet Iris (Iris pallida 'Variegata') - This sweetly scented Iris has both handsome violet-blue flowers and variegated foliage with ribbons of green, white and creamy-yellow. I enjoy this one as much for its colorful foliage as for its fragrant flowers.

Bearded Iris & Salvia in a sidewalk garden. Customer photo by Josie T.Bearded Iris & Salvia in a sidewalk garden. Customer photo by Josie T.
Bearded Iris & Salvia in a sidewalk garden. Customer photo by Josie T.

Shop Bearded Iris

Perennial Bearded Irises are tough, hardy perennials and a welcome sign of summer. Drawing its name from the Greek word for rainbow, these elegant flowers are bursting with color.