Monthly Archives: January 2014

Time for Dividing

Late winter and early spring are ideal times to divide perennials on Alcatraz. As we do not (typically) receive frost, plants never go fully dormant as in northern climates, but herbaceous plants do slow their growing of new leaves. This window is perfect for dividing bearded iris. The plants have not yet put valuable stored energy into producing new leaves, and instead can expend energy into forming new feeder roots once it has been replanted. Once established, new leaves are produced. We have found that mature clumps of iris will still flower the same year that they were transplanted, but smaller pieces of an iris rhizome may take up to two years to flower.

 

Generally, we aim to divide our iris

Overgrown clump of bearded iris. Photo by Melissa Harris.

Overgrown clump of bearded iris. Photo by Melissa Harris.

every three years, just like the Ruth Bancroft Garden does with Ruth’s heirloom collection of iris. Happy iris become overgrown and the thick rhizomes start to crowd each other, growing over top of one another. Overgrown iris can lead to several problems – poor air circulation which increases rust on the leaves, the roots competing for nutrients in the soil, and the centers of the iris clump will become bare of leaves and not produce any flowers at all. It’s easy to tell when you should take on the project of dividing your own iris if you look for these signs.

 

The garden volunteers divided the tall scented bearded iris in the Prisoner’s gardens this week. Four separate patches of iris were divided, and we ended up with not only the beds replanted, but with five bins of extra iris!

 

Bins of extra iris rhizomes. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Bins of extra iris rhizomes. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The iris bloomed really well last year, but as we add fresh compost to enrich the soil, the rhizomes were becoming buried. Iris likes to be planted very shallow, with the backs of the rhizome sitting above the soil.

 

One of the volunteers showed me an interesting feature about the rhizomes that I didn’t know before. Looking at the underside where the roots grow from, holes are visible. These were where the roots had grown from. The rhizome grows from one end, and the older end becomes a storage unit for energy (much like a potato). When dividing iris, the older sections are broken away and only the piece with the roots are kept. We are curious to see if the older section will sprout roots, so we placed a few in a pot in our greenhouse to see what happens

 

 

Holes from old roots are visible on the underside of the iris rhizome. Photo by Shelagh Fritz
Holes from old roots are visible on the underside of the iris rhizome. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

The growing point is on the right, the old part without roots can be seen on the left. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The growing point is on the right, the old part without roots can be seen on the left. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now we are busy trying to find new homes for the divided extras, these are my favorites and I can’t bear to compost them.

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Garden Update

A key component to historical garden restoration is to document our work. As we have replanted a few garden beds this season, we are now following up the work with ‘after’ shots.

The little roadside bed that we fondly call the Chapel Bed was renovated this past August, and it is really coming into its own with the spring show of daffodils.

For snow bound East Coasters,

The daffodils in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The daffodils in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

probably smelling our scented heirloom daffodils in January is a treat for the senses.

Including the daffodils, just in this tiny bed, there are five different plants blooming right now. There is the red valerian, Centranthus ruber, Hebe, and Verbena bonariensis. The mix of purple, red and yellow just say ‘spring is here’.

 

The plants not in bloom are building up to put on a great show for the summer. Already, the Tower of Jewels, Echium pininana, has doubled its size many times over. We dug up a seedling elsewhere on the island and planted it on the corner knowing that it will demand attention from the visitors walking by. Right now, it is quietly doing its own thing, growing a little each day and probably doesn’t even get a glance from the thousands of people passing by – but just wait – by the end of the summer it will reach 10 feet high and will be the star of the bed. The Tower of Jewels showed up in newly acquired historic photo along the main roadway, so it was appropriate to replant it.

 

The Echium was started in a 4" pot back in August. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The Echium was started in a 4″ pot back in August. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The Echium is on its way to being 10 feet tall. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Another silent wonder in this bed unfortunately will not get a season to shine. This, of course, is the new compost that was added. Rich in organic matter and worms, the compost is from our own award winning recipe and is the essential building block.

 

 

 

All too often, home gardeners are so eager to plant that the important step of soil preparation is missed. Amending a bed is the most physically challenging part, but the effort will be rewarded. Compost should be mixed in with the existing soil, so the plants get extra nutrients but also get accustomed to the native soil.

As the arm chair gardeners sit out the rest of the winter looking at seed catalogues, don’t forget about your soil and plan to give it some extra attention this spring.

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