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The Monumental Task of Separating the Irises

I’ve shared quite a few pictures of the church flowerbeds. I’ve also shared pictures of what it looked like before I began the role of the groundskeeper. Except during the winter, maintaining the flowerbeds requires almost constant attention. Now, late in the year this year, I’m starting a major task that has to do with that maintenance; separating the irises.

As almost anyone who has grown irises knows, if the plants grow well, the tubers need to be separated about every 2-3 years. They can become a tangled mass, making it more difficult for each individual iris to get nourishment, so the number of blooms tends to drop off in over-crowded plants.

I started out with only three clumps of irises, three years ago. However, they hadn’t been separated or tended for about 20 years. They were badly overgrown, with each clump about 4 feet across and the tubers in layers down to about 4 feet deep. It was a major undertaking to even dig those clumps up so they could be separated, but it was no wonder that at that time, there would only be a half-dozen blooms per clump. The roots were starving.

It has only been three years since I dug up those clumps and separated the irises, replanting along the old building at church. It is time to do it again and I figure that it will take the best part of a month, working at it daily, for a few hours a day. Three years ago, I threw away easily over 200 pounds of iris tubers because I couldn’t give them away. Nobody was interested in them. I’m hoping that I won’t have to throw that many away this time, but I can tell that I will be hard-pressed to find new homes for all of them.

A revisit from mid-June

I've shared this picture before, but this is the section of the flowerbeds that needed to be separated. There are a large number of mostly light blue blossoms, with only about half the blossoms open, so the irises are definitely healthy, however, they are also getting overgrown. This can be seen by how close together the plants are. 

Keep in mind that when they were replanted, each iris was about a foot away from the next one. They certainly aren't that far apart in this picture. It looks like a solid mass of leaves from one end to the other, and the entire three-foot width of the flowerbed. There are also day-lilies in there, but without the day-lilies blooming yet, it is very hard to even see where they are.

First, a good trimming

The first step was to trim the leaves of the irises and daylilies back to about 8-9 inches. Even doing just that made it look neater. This is about 15 hours of work, but if anything, it shows how much effort lies ahead. There are also weeds growing along the sidewalk on the other side, but I'm not sure if I'll have time to kill them. The flowerbeds are the priority.

The clumps

This is what the individual clumps look like. They don't look all that big or overgrown, but they are. For scale, at the bottom of this picture, just to the left of center, you can see the front of my left shoe. My shoe size is 12 1/2, so I don't have small feet. This is a big clump. It is nowhere near as big as the clumps I started out with three years ago, but this is phenomenal growth for only three years.

Partly dug clump

In this image, I have about half of a clump dug up and separated. The other half is what you see on the right. The clump, in this case, was both iris and daylilies, so healthy that they'd grown together. The shovel is a good indication of the scale. It is a standard shovel and not a spade. The black line going from right to left is a soaker hose, which I didn't use this year.

Out of the ground, awaiting separation

This is one of the clumps, actually half of one, that has been dug up, but not yet separated. This is mostly daylilies, but there are some iris tubers in there, too. The daylilies are actually easier to dig up and separate, mostly because of the thickness of the iris tubers. In places, the iris roots are so thick that I can't chop through them with the shovel. If I use the shovel to try to pry them up, it could snap the handle, too, so the going is slow.

A fourth of a clump separated

What you see at the bottom of the picture next to the knee pad is only about a quarter of one clump, after it has been separated. This isn't including the irises I've already replanted. Those can be seen in the ground to the left of the shovel.

As I separate the irises, I'm putting the excess in bags, 12 to a bag, to make it more appealing for people to take them. With three full clumps done, I have 11 bags of a dozen irises each (132 irises) and one bag of 24 daylilies to give away. That is after replanting some of them. I still have about 25 clumps of Irises to do.

More separated irises

This pile of tubers is bigger than it looks. There are about 30 plants there and you can see one of the bags to the left, ready to be stuffed with a dozen of the plants. 

A good start

This section has already been done. Two clumps have been dug up from here, separated, and some irises have been replanted. The irises look a little flimsy and droopy, but that is because the soil isn't firm yet and the irises are a bit shocky. These irises were all about four feet tall before I trimmed them to about nine inches, so the appearance is more due to the trimming than the digging, separating, and replanting. They should look fine in the spring when they come back up after a winter of dormancy.

I'm specifically doing this now, though, to give them a chance to establish themselves before winter. The irises and daylilies are being planted under a rich medium of partly composted bark mulch, so the soil should be nice and rich for them after it breaks down through the winter.

The bush in the upper left corner is a lilac that was originally a sucker from one of our lilacs at home. It is now three-years-old, so it will hopefully produce flowers next year.

It will probably take me most of a month to get the rest of this flowerbed done, but once I do, it should look pleasant to the eye and the plants should grow very well next year. I didn't amend the soil three years ago when I last did this, so everything was growing in rather nutrient-poor clay soil.

At least I have a good start on it and have been working on it daily, except for today. It rained last night and this morning, so I'm taking a day off from this labor.

What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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