Digging Up An Iris Bed

August 3, 2007

I helped out my garden buddy, Berni from La Vie En Rose Gardens, last weekend by digging up one of her bearded iris beds to transfer them to Ottawa. It had been sadly neglected by the garden host and there were many weeds, iris borers and soft rot. I jumped at the chance of helping her out so that I could learn from an expert about these beautiful flowers as well as receiving a generous amount of new rhizomes.

We started out the day at 8 AM. I brought my long-handled shovel and a short spade, finding out later that a garden fork would have been better as it does less damage to the rhizomes and roots. We were dismayed at what greeted us:

Weeds! Four-foot high weeds! Before we could even start the project we had to pull all these weeds so that we wouldn’t trample any precious plants underfoot. Here’s a close-up of what we were dealing with:

You can see the pointy sheaths of the bearded irises nestled in amongst the weeds. Bearded irises like good air circulation and can get smothered under weeds which leads to fungus and rot. We started weeding. This (bottom right) was just one of the many piles of weeds we made that day:

You can see the bearded irises now, some with extensive leaf damage due to the excessive weeds. All were labelled, some with pretty funky names like Klingon Princess and Sargent Preston.

There were some labels that didn’t have growth behind it where the bearded iris had died. R.I.P. Dotted Doll and Grandma’s Hat. After a couple of hours of intense weeding we started lifting the clumps of irises. Each iris has a main rhizome that creates lateral buds that grow into new shoots. One clump of iris will have one rhizome and as many as 15 – 20 new shoots. Once you separate the shoots, each new shoot has the potential to create a new main rhizome from which it will create more new shoots. Given the right conditions, iris can be very prolific.

Unfortunately bearded iris are prone to the iris borer, a nastly little bug that can cause extensive damage. Adult moths lay eggs in the iris bed in August/September of the previous year. In April/May, larvae tunnel into the leaves and eat their way down towards the soil. By mid-July they enter the rhizome and cause bacterial soft rot. Here’s a shot of the larvae:

Then they move from the rhizome into the soil where they pupate and hatch into adult moths, laying their eggs in the iris bed to start the process over again. We found a few of these larvae in the bed and, to fight against this infestation, all the rhizomes were to be soaked in a solution of 1 part bleach and 9 parts water.

We kept working, falling into a rhythym of setting the fork beside a clump, stepping down, angling the fork to lift up the clump, pulling up the clump, shaking the soil off, grabbing the tag and place it on the grass for processing. Set, step, angle, pull, shake, tag and place. There was a lot of clumps. You can kind of see the piles of iris in a row on the grass (also weedy!)

There were three other volunteers and two of them were busy processing all the lifted clumps of iris. They grabbed a clump, checked the list to see if it had been sold, not sold or donated. Using scissors they clipped leaves of the clump down to 4″ – 6″ high and shortened the roots to a fist-width. The stock number was written on a plastic bag with a Sharpie and the tidied-up clump was bagged and piled.

Things were going along smoothly with three people digging and two people bagging until the downpour. Hastily setting up a canopy we all stood underneath and weighed our options. We decided to keep going and, being a bit of a wuss, I grabbed my raincoat. I was soaked and covered in sweat-mingled mud. Of course, it wasn’t too long before we decided to break for lunch.

I was a bit self-concious sitting in the restaurant, the backs of my legs, feet and flip flops covered in mud, however, once the food came I didn’t care. I was starving. Getting up to head out, our wooden seats were stained gray by our wet butts! Thankfully it stopped raining. Back at the iris bed things were looking better as almost all the irises had been lifted:

Once lifted, all five of us were working on processing the irises by trimming the clumps, bagging and marking them. We loaded them all up in the van at 4 PM:

Looking back, the iris bed was finally empty.

It took five people and 26 combined hours to dig up this iris bed. It was a huge undertaking and we were rewarded with our own irises to take home. I took a few clumps and went home and had a two-hour nap.

When I had started the day I was tentative and timid about lifting these beautiful flowers. After 8 hours of working in the humidity, rain and mud I feel very confident about digging up and dividing irises.

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7 Responses to “Digging Up An Iris Bed”


  1. That’s one amazing iris bed. I had a bit of rot on one iris but couldn’t find any borer. Thanks for the informative post!

  2. Kathy Says:

    No problem! I found out this weekend that it was a 16′ x 50′ bed that we dug up. Since all the irises are to be sold, she really packs them in there.


  3. I’ve never seen anything that bothered iris – didn’t know about borers (and hope I never see it!). Great job logging the entire endeavor, thanks for sharing this.

  4. Irene Hyland Says:

    That was quite a job. Congratulations to all on the work done.
    I sympathize with the height of the weeds. They really seem to have gone to town this year. I hope I never see an iris borer but at least I know what they look like now.
    I was just about to go out and start my own rearranging job but the rain came down in torrents. It will make the weeding easier tho.
    The pictures were very inforative too. Thanks for a very interesting blog.
    Irene


  5. […] September 19th, 2007 During the first week of September I finally got around to planting my bearded iris rhizomes that were given to me when I helped a friend dig up her iris bed. […]


  6. […] an Eastern Ontario garden guide book, and, my friend Berni from La Vie En Rose Gardens who I helped dig up her iris bed last […]


  7. […] ran into some familiar faces: Bernie from La Vie En Rose (I helped her dig up her iris bed a couple of years ago), Mary from the Cottage Gardener (we visited her farm last year and did a bit […]


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