If you’re in the hunt for an easy-to-grow, drought tolerant, fire resistant, fool proof plant with a flower of such exquisite color, form and knock-your-socks-off beauty, look no farther than the bearded iris. And this is the perfect time to add one or two or twenty to your garden because the Monterey Iris Society is holding their annual sale at the Cabrillo Farmer’s Market this Saturday and next, August 7th and August 14th from 9am – noon.
Several years ago I was fortunate to be able to spend the morning in Scotts Valley painting the tall bearded iris growing at the Cummins Iris Garden. They grow hundreds of varieties on their property. Jim and Irene welcomed my group of fellow artists sharing the history of their property and growing tips. Amidst the beds of prized bearded iris is an impressive antique farming implement collection. This historic property dates back to 1849 when an older house was built as a stagecoach stop where a fresh team of horses could be changed out.
Jim told me that considering the history of the property he and Irene started displaying the old stuff they had and decided to add more by going to auctions and yard sales. Everywhere you look they have created an interesting vignette of plants and artifacts. Displayed on the old barn is an impressive vintage wrench collection as well as dozens of spigot handles. Antique tractor seats, watering cans, washing tubs, rusted bed frames, wagons, old kiddie cars- you name it, Jim and Irene have collected it.
Due to the abundance of old wood on the property Jim said he started building Irene birdhouses. With so many interesting things to enjoy I had a hard time deciding what to paint. I took dozens of photos but settled on capturing their magnificent tall bearded iris in full bloom.
Jim is on the board of the Tall Bearded Iris Society (TBIS) and is also active in Historic Iris Preservation Society. As I walked around the blooming iris beds I noticed many had the name of Joe Ghio as their hybridizer. Some of the Cummins original rhizomes were collected from him as well as other iris gardens in the area. Early on they could only afford to buy a few of the older and less expensive offerings but as their garden began to grow they joined the Monterey Bay Iris Society.
The Cummins iris farm has been so successful that in 2019 the National Convention was hosted at their garden.
When I asked Jim for the growing tips that make his iris so spectacular he told me he mostly uses lawn trimmings and tree leaves along with their native sand to break the soil down. “Iris don’t seem to care much as to soil type, they just need good drainage”, he said. He fertilizes with a balanced granular 15-15-15 fertilizer, using only an 1/8 cup or less sprinkled around each clump around Valentines Day and again in August or September. Another tip he told me was to be sure to plant the rhizomes real shallow with the tops showing and about 12-18 inches apart. They water every 2-3 weeks although he says they can go longer between irrigations.
Every gardener I know raves about their bearded iris collection. By planting early, mid and late varieties you can extend their colorful show for several months. Iris also make good cut flowers and many are fragrant.