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October To-Do: Plant Dwarf Iris, for Early Spring Flowers

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October To-Do: Plant Dwarf Iris, for Early Spring Flowers

October 12, 2018

In the dead of winter is there anything more uplifting and satisfying than the sight of the first spring bulbs poking up through the lawn or in a few pots? If you add the delicate dwarf Iris reticulata to the mix, not only will you have flowers from late January, you also will have a delicious palette of rich colors to choose from—from ultramarine to the softest ice blue, and from cheery yellow to sultry olive.

At designer Arne Maynard’s Monmouthshire home, early spring is lit up with vast swaths of candy box pastels as dwarf iris mingle with lemony narcissi and delicate crocus. If you haven’t yet discovered the potential of these little fuss-free flowers, then read on and prepare to be seduced.

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer.

What are reticulate irises?

Sources to buy dwarf irises include (for US gardeners) Brent and Becky&#8
Above: Sources to buy dwarf irises include (for US gardeners) Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, where 10 bulbs of plum-colored Iris Dwarf Histrioides ‘George’ is $4.90. In the UK, an order of 25 bulbs of  rich purple Iris Reticulata ‘J.S. Dijt’ is £4.99 at Crocus.

These small bulbs get their name from the mesh-like skin that surrounds them. After their spiky quadrangular leaves emerge, the flowers will grow only to a height of about six inches. Yet other than their diminutive proportions, they are very similar to their statuesque cousins—with three “standards” (the inner upright sepals) and three outer “falls.” Many modern reticulates are hybrids of I. histrioides whose natural habitat is on the exposed mountain sides of Turkey, which is why even if there’s snow on the ground these tough little flowers will still push on through and fill the air with their delicate scent.

How should I plant reticulate Iris bulbs?

Pastel shades mix well with crocuses.
Above: Pastel shades mix well with crocuses.

Like most other iris, the reticulates like well-drained soil and a sunny position. They can be planted in grass (where they will typically naturalize over time), in borders under deciduous shrubs, in rockeries, and in gravel gardens. Plant them about three inches deep (less and they may not re-flower) and plant in early autumn so that they have time to get their roots down into the soil before the ground cools.

Iris histrioides &#8
Above: Iris histrioides ‘George’.

UK-based garden expert Sarah Raven suggests using I. histroides ‘George’ as a colorful top layer in a bulb lasagne. Plan it well and you can have flowers from late January until May if you add the right layers of tulips to follow. Add a layer of gravel on the top to prevent slug damage and to protect the delicate flowers from being splashed with rain or soil.

A few bulbs planted in small pots are a lovely thing to grow indoors in late winter, but like many spring bulbs they need a long period of cold to prompt them into flowering.

What other flowering bulbs look good mixed with dwarf irises?

Dwarf irises naturalize and mingle well with crocuses.
Above: Dwarf irises naturalize and mingle well with crocuses.

There are so many delicious colors to choose from, including very rich purples such as the ever-popular ‘J.S. Dijt’ or ‘Pauline’ through to soft pale blues of ‘Natascha’ or ‘Cantab’.

 ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ (visible at R) is a mesmerizing pale gray.  For US gardeners,  Iris Katharine Hodgkin is $. for  bulbs at White Flower Farm. For UK gardeners,  bulbs of Iris &#8
Above: ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ (visible at R) is a mesmerizing pale gray.  For US gardeners,  Iris Katharine Hodgkin is $14.25 for 25 bulbs at White Flower Farm. For UK gardeners, 10 bulbs of Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ is £4.99 from Crocus.

As garden designer Arne Maynard’s garden at his home, Allt-y-bela, illustrates, dwarf irises can look extraordinary mixed with other pastels. Plant ‘Pixie’ with ‘Pauline’ and the ultra-marine ‘George’ with other short bulbs such as Crocus tommasinianus and smaller forms of narcissi, to create a sea of color across lawns and meadows.

How do I care for Iris reticulata bulbs?

 Bulbs that have been used in pots can be replanted after flowering in borders.
Above: Bulbs that have been used in pots can be replanted after flowering in borders.

Over time, if planted in the ground, these bulbs will multiply and get congested, at which point dig them up in late summer and divide them before replanting.

For more growing tips, see Crocus: A Field Guide to Planting, Care, and Design in our curated design guides to Bulbs & Tubers 101. Read more:

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for iris with our Iris: A Field Guide.

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