There’s Still Time to Divide Your Irises

Amass a colorful collection by sharing with friends and neighbors.

Despite a particularly premature snow storm, conditions are ripe to divide and transplant iris. Recent sunny days melted the snow pack moistening and warming the soil, making hospitable beds for transplant patients. The current weather forecast shows plenty of time for new roots to establish.

The Bearded Iris is very common in Connecticut gardens. They bloom in the spring after many daffodil and tulip varieties are spent. This large-blossom variety of iris come a range of colors, from solid to streaked. Its contrast of spiky leaves and feathery blooms is a community-building catalyst. It is easy and fun to exchange different colors with neighbors, enhancing garden beauty and the bonds of friendship.

One astute reader of Alice’s Garden Advice correctly pointed out in my last article that now is not the ideal time to split iris. RJ wrote “ it is generally considered good to divide about a month or two after blooming, this is when they are most likely to send out more growth. It is also the recommended time according to the American Iris Society.”

But, if you are busy raising teenagers like I am, or toddlers or working too much, sometimes the ideal time passes us by. Previous generations of gardeners in my family have exchanged iris in late August or fall with little or no drama. So, if you would like to dig back in to gardening in order to experience a little more of the fall we thought we lost, here is how.

The top of the main root of a bearded iris, “the rhizome,” sits just above the dirt when properly planted. After a few seasons, these plants will present center sections of rhizomes with no leaves. This signals a good time for division.

Delicately dig up the entire clump with a shovel to avoid slicing the thick, fleshy parts. Alternatively, a properly placed sharp knife can cut out the no-longer-functioning center while the mass is still planted in the ground. This method takes the weak link out and leaves multiple plants in their original place.

To divide up an entire lifted lump, examine its make-up. Discard any mushy sections. They won’t grow and will adversely affect any bump connected to it. Cut off the individual outer bumps that have small leaves jutting up from the end. Carve each section off separately. This act reminds me of creating individual servings from a loaf of monkey bread or Challah. The difference is that each seperated section looks more like a crayfish (or “crawdad” if you like) than a piece of bread.

Share sections with friends and keep some for yourself. I like to cut any tall leaves back to 1/3 height, on an angle.

Plant the fledglings about 6 inches apart with the top of the rhizome peaking out of the soil. It’s best if the tiny side roots extend down further into the soil. Accomplish this by digging a hole and then building up a mound in the middle to balance the fat root upon, allowing the skinny little legs to dangle. Building the middle mound is reminiscent of creating a sand castle, making it kind of fun.

Dina D'Amato November 10, 2011 at 08:39 PM
Hey Alice- Several years ago you gave me some irises that were originally from your mother's garden. They have multiplied and I now have them in three of my gardens, and they all bloom beautifully. They're much sturdier than they appear. I, too, will divide them and pass them along :-)


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