Gardeners (most of us, anyway) live in two worlds simultaneously. There is the ideal world of the imagination, where we anticipate how all our plants will look when fully established, enjoying a year of "normal" weather, with all their needs fully attended to by the dedicated and loving gardener. For hybridizers, this is the world where every cross takes, every seed germinates, and (at least) some of the seedlings from each cross manifest the potential that inspired us to make the cross in the first place.
Then there is the real world, where we lose plants, where late freezes devastate bloom season, where setbacks are frequent and the whole enterprise sometimes seems touch-and-go. In many cases, we can learn from problems and challenges and help prevent or mitigate them in the future. Other times, there is little to be done but accept that one is working with nature, which is inherently unpredictable.
This article is a reflection on my first two years gardening at Telperion Oasis and my first year starting an iris garden and hybridizing program here.
Good news first: We've had a successful vegetable garden (producing food for our dinner table on a weekly basis over many months) both years. The effort to landscape the portion of the backyard near the house has been a success, although still a work in progress. The weeds are under control, and we've enjoyed not only irises, but roses, morning glories, a lovely fragrant daphne, spring bulbs, and other ornamental plants. I planted about 60 irises in 2010, and had only two losses (an arilbred and a spuria, both lost over winter). We are eliminating the Siberian Elms, one by one, and new areas are coming under cultivation.
The bad news: growing flower and vegetable starts indoors for planting out in spring has been a hit-or-miss business, more often miss. I've lost seedlings while hardening off in the cold frame, both to cold and to excessive heat. Others, planted out in the hot, dry, windy weather of May and June, have died without even putting up a good struggle. Some survive, though, and this year I have beautiful tomato plants and portulaca from seed raised indoors. Nursery-bought plants sometimes fare no better. The record cold at the beginning of February (-18 Fahrenheit, -28 Celsius) was a huge setback in getting the garden established, decimating standby plants that I had never thought to worry about in a zone 6 garden: creeping thyme, iceplant, ornamental grasses, sedum, lamium. An unexpected freeze in early May clobbered the few TB irises that tried to bloom this year, although a splendid median season more than made up for that. My greatest discouragement, however, was the almost complete lack of germination among the iris seeds planted this winter. Having had reasonable success with similar (although not identical) planting procedures in the past, I attribute this to weather. Although iris seeds can endure extreme winter cold while dormant, the sudden dip to -18 without protection and without warning might have taken a toll. Noted iris breeder Keith Keppel reported to me a similar experience on a few occassions when the temperature is warm and spring-like for a month or two (as it was here in March and April), and then a hard freeze hits (as we had at the beginning of May). He conjectures that the seeds that are already preparing to sprout are especially vulnerable to freezing. This makes sense to me. It is my hope that some fraction of the seeds remained fully dormant and may sprout in subsequent years. Also, the seeds I planted were almost exclusively species, which can be expected to show more protracted germination than garden hybrids.
What's to be learned from these experiences?
This year, I was able to do a lot of soil preparation through the fall, winter, and early spring. This has worked out extremely well, spreading the labor over an extended period of time, disrupting the growth cycle of the weeds, and leaving me with beds waiting to be planted in the summer. At other times in my gardening career, I've found myself scrambling to prepare planting areas at the last minute. There is simply no comparison between the two approaches. Advance preparation gives so much more return on the labor investment.
Although it is very tempting to start or purchase lots of plants in the spring when weather warms, I've concluded that spring is the most dangerous season to start new plants in my area. Our current garden is an even more exposed, dry site than other places I've gardened in northern New Mexico, and is less forgiving. Some things, of course (warm-season vegetables) simply must be planted at this time if they are to be grown at all. But in the future, I am shifting my attention to perennials that can be planted in late summer or autumn. August seems the best time to plant bearded irises, and that includes seedlings. (The one Iris pumila seedling I obtained this year was lost because of being transplanted in June.) (Update, 2014: transplanting late seems to set things back a year, though. I have now reverted to spring transplanting for the iris seedlings.) A few small irises sent to me in May quickly withered. The rhizomes are still firm, so I can only hope that they are not dead and may put out growth this autumn.
When I start plants indoors next year, I will start them earlier, and be less impatient about planting them out. The shade of the back porch seems to work well for growing them on after danger of frost has past. For flowers, I will focus more on perennials that I can start in the spring and plant out as husky plants in autumn.
It is clear that climate change is having its effect here in northern New Mexico, as it is all over the world. Our record wildfire season is a harbinger of this. The "new normal" seems to be extreme drought and heat from April through the end of July, more erratic monsoon seasons, and more erratic winter temperatures.
As I write this at the end of July, the monsoon weather pattern has arrived, giving us cloudy afternoons and relief from the heat and wind, although not much rain so far. I'm looking forward to planting over the next couple months, and to next year's spring in a more established garden.
It's October now, and things seem less bleak than they did in July. All my new acquisitions are in the ground and growing well, even those that arrived shriveled and leafless. We've had two solid months of rainy, temperate weather that has rejuvenated the plantings. Even the Mathes arilpum seedling which I received from Lowell Baumunk in May is putting up new growth. (I feared I had lost it when the leaves withered and disappeared this summer.) An Iris pumila seed sprouted during the monsoons, offering some hope that more seeds will germinate next spring. Many of the pure arils planted in September are sending up modest leaf growth, making me optimistic that they are rooting well. I'm still expecting two packages of arils from the UK, but when they are planted the garden will be ready for winter.
I'm looking forward to next year, when most of the work of breaking new ground and acquiring plants will be behind me, and the garden will settle into a steady state. I'm now feeling very satisfied with the progress so far. I've acquired essentially everything I need for my breeding program, although there are still a few I'm keeping on the lookout for. Furthermore, I had done enough advance preparation that the new acquisitions did not put a stress on my available planting space or overwhelm the esthetics of the garden spaces.
Despite the struggles of gardening in a sometimes very harsh climate, the irises remind me that they are indeed rugged, durable plants, eager to grow if given a reasonable chance.
Updated October 2011
Unless otherwise noted, all text and illustrations copyright Tom Waters and all photographs copyright Tom or Karen Waters. Please do not reproduce without permission.