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GARDENING : Mixing Tall With Short Is More Pleasing to the Iris


Is your garden all yin and no yang?

Soft, rounded forms please the eye, more so when they have something straight and spiky to work against for contrast. A successful garden benefits from the strong, vertical element of at least one crisp, sword-leafed plant.

A tall bearded iris can add that contrast.

And, in sunny Southern California, the plant is virtually evergreen.

Bearded irises have traditionally been purchased and planted as bare-root rhizomes in late summer, but most nurseries now also offer irises for sale in pots in early spring for immediate planting.

Jim Puckett of Blooming Fields Farm, a commercial iris grower in Riverside, believes bearded irises will soon enjoy a new era of popularity. At least he hopes so.

The only reason the tough, tolerant bearded iris disappeared in the first place, he says, is that many farmers who grew them sold off their properties to developers in the '50s, and the all-green landscaping that became popular in the '60s did not encourage others to take their places.

But things are changing.

"People want true gardens, not landscapes, these days," says Cristin Fusano, horticulturist and assistant manager at Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar. "They want herbs, vegetables, grapevines and cut flowers, and nurseries are responding."

"I always include iris in the plans when people ask for cottage gardens," she says. "Though the flowers are beautiful, I'd use iris even if they never bloomed. I think the foliage is wonderful."

The upright soldierly presence of irises is a sure-fire counterbalance to the curved shapes in a garden, says Fusano.

Here's how she uses the plants:

* Place several tall bearded irises in one color in a clump as a focal point in the middle of the border. "Three if you have a small garden, five if it's larger," she says.

* Place low-mounded plants in front of the iris, larger mounded plants behind it, and airy broom-like plants at the back. For the front of the border, Fusano suggests herbs like golden or lime thyme, golden sage, and Dittany of Crete (an oregano), true geraniums (also known as cranesbill) such as the popular 'Johnson's Blue,' or ground morning glory (Convolvulus mauritanicus).

"All of these have similar cultural requirements as iris," says Fusano. "They don't like rich soil, and they don't need frequent watering."

Pittosporum crassifolium is a good companion for the mid- ground, she suggests, and Erica (heath), pink breath of heaven, or Westringia, especially 'Wynabie Gem,' are nice background plants.

Warren Gnas, color specialist at Amling's Newport Nursery likes bearded irises in borders, too. Following are some of his favorite companions:

For the front, he suggests, gray or green santolina, snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum), Santa Barbara Daisy, Nierembergia (especially 'Mont Blanc'), perennial blue flax ( Linum perenne ), or catmint ( Nepeta faassenii ).

"Anything that sort of floats over the rhizomes and doesn't compete with them would be good," says Gnas. "Mat forming ground covers are too aggressive."

The perfect background shrubs, in his opinion, would be native wild lilacs. "Ceanothus are wonderful with iris," Gnas says. The plant's small, dark-green leaves and sky-colored flowers complement the blue, pink, and white iris his customers favor, he says.

Fusano reports similar customer preferences. Though irises come in a wide range of colors, including browns and near-blacks, and several patterns, including bitones and plicatas, these cultivars are most popular with iris collectors. Other gardeners, in her experience, prefer pure solid colors in traditional iris hues such as lavender-blue 'Mary Frances,' white 'Cotton Carnival' and pink 'Beverly Sills,' perhaps because they're a better match for other spring-blooming pastels.

For those not fond of pastels, there are more strongly colored irises, such as bright yellow 'Lemon Custard,' deep purple 'Dusky Challenger,' or 'All That Jazz,' a yellow/burgundy bitone.

Iris enthusiast Jennie Hopson combines the strongly colored varieties with traditional Southern California landscaping plants with equally vivid colors.

The San Clemente Garden Club member (and with husband, Russell, a former iris specialty nursery owner) recommends the following:

For the very front of the border, she favors an edging of blue fescue. The glaucous color of this ornamental clumping grass is a nice repetition of the similarly-colored iris foliage, Hopson says.

Behind the fescue, try zonal geraniums, day lilies, succulents with large, fleshy leaves, and heavenly bamboo. Roses work, too, especially floribundas, she says.

Ideally, arching over all, says Hopson, would be the airy canopy of a flowering tree like crape myrtle or bottle brush to direct the eye upward.

The main thing to remember, she says, is to work for balance. "You need a few tall, sword-like plants like iris, softer, bushier plants, some things with great big leaves, and then some fine, needle-like foliage from grasses or conifers."

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