Gardening: Seduced by a dandy

Foppish and arrogant, the tall bearded iris is the Aubrey Beardsley of the flower world. Sarah Raven admires its exquisite texture and patterning and advises on the best varieties for the late spring garden
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The Independent Culture
I THINK that the shape and texture of the tall bearded iris make it the king of the late spring garden. But there are many who wouldn't agree. The brilliant plantsman Christopher Lloyd has only one bearded iris, Iris pallida `Variegata', planted in his garden at Great Dixter and won't be planting more. This variety has scented, soft, lilac-blue flowers and greyish foliage striped with white. It's early and very free- flowering and, though tall, does not blow over. It makes a bright panel of silver-green foliage through much of the year. He likes seeing different forms in other people's gardens, but, in his view, they do not flower for long enough and are plain without their flowers.

I am more easily seduced. I don't mind how short their season is, and I like their leaves, which emerge early in the year. If grown well, once a clump is established, the leaves will look good throughout the summer and provide a grove of architectural, sword-like spikes which are perfect as a background to intensely flowery areas. It's a good idea to cut the leaves down to about a third of their height in late summer so they do not get rocked by autumn winds, but until then the leaves are an asset in my garden.

As for the flowers, they are huge, floppy, arrogant things, on top of stems a metre tall. I was expelled from my secondary school for being haughty. I used to stick my nose in the air whenever I was told off. I see bearded iris in the garden and recognise myself: no creeping conformity there. If Aubrey Beardsley were a flower, he'd be one of these.

They have three big petals that fold down (the falls) and three that stand up above them like the crest line of feathers in the Prince of Wales's plume (the standards). The three lower petals have a silken band in the middle, the beard, which is often surrounded by delicate veining in a different colour. The petals of some modern varieties are ruffled around the edges, but I don't like them. Look at `Dusky Challenger' and you'll see what I mean. Its flowers are an amazingly deep, rich purple and its texture is luxurious, but the crimped petals make it look like a ruched curtain. Iris flowers are complex anyway; they don't need this extra fussiness to look good. Traditional tailored varieties with a straight edge are bolder and more stylish.

The silken velvet appearance of many bearded iris is as luscious as you get in the plant world. Add this to the sweet, incense-like smell that you get with some varieties, and it's hard to find a flower to beat them.

To have a succession of them in your garden from mid-May to early July, you want to grow one or two from each of the different flowering groups: the early, mid- season and late flowerers. You could also select some that re-bloom, for even later flowers. There are tall bearded iris in pretty much any colour you want: rich Venetian colours, purple-black, deep garnet red, indigo and mahogany. You can grow bright, buttercup yellow, a gingery-orange, and there are lots of clear mauves, pale blues, silvery-pinks and whites.

I have chosen clumps of rich, dusky crimsons and deep purples for my garden. `Night Owl' and `Before the Storm' have purple flowers which look almost black in the falls. `Before the Storm' is a mid-season variety that flowers in June. `Night Owl' is middle and late season.

For the deep reds, I have `Hell's Fire' which is a dark crimson tinged with mahogany. It is one of the first to flower and goes on flowering for a long time, followed by `Quechee', another deep garnet red, which flowers through June. I also have a bi-colour, `Marshlander', with red-brown falls and bronze standards. This is the last to flower, and continues into July.

Bearded iris are the ideal plants for free-draining chalk or sand. You can grow them in heavier soils, but you should add a lot of grit to the soil before you plant them and you must find them a sunny spot, where their roots are not overshadowed by the dense foliage of other plants. The front of the border is ideal, with their rhizomes (the bulbous roots which look like gnarled fingers) placed right by the path. The rhizomes should be no more than 1cm (0.5in) below the soil surface, lined up facing south.

You are often told to plant them with the rhizome exposed. Don't listen; they need to be anchored firmly in the ground to get established. The plant will push itself to the surface when it has formed new roots. The key to prolific flowering is plenty of sun to warm and ripen each clump of the rootstock. Never add humus or mushroom compost: you will get lots of leaves and few flowers.

The unusual thing about these plants is that they thrive if planted in the dry part of the year. You can go along to a specialist nursery like Croftway's, just outside Bognor Regis, see them in flower in May and early June and select the ones you like. They have huge stock beds and nearly 200 varieties on show. Your chosen plants will be posted a couple of months later and should be planted as soon as they arrive in August.

Croftway Nursery, Yapton Road, Barnham, Bognor Regis, West Sussex PO22 OBH (01243 552121). Call in advance if you wish to have a picnic in the iris fields next bank holiday weekend (29-31 May). Or visit them at http://members.aol.com/croftway/

Claire Austin Hardy Plants also has a very good selection of bearded iris. Bowling Green Lane, Albrighton, Wolverhampton WV7 3HB (01902 376333)

This week

1 Sunflowers will go on looking good until the first frosts in October and should be sown now. Push one seed a couple of inches into the ground with your forefinger and cover over the hole. Sow another two to three inches away and then poke in the next pair 18 inches away. Out of the pair, one is bound to germinate and you can remove the second if it germinates as well. Don't leave both plants to grow on bang next door. They will crowd each other out. If you space the pairs at 18 inches, there is no need to thin.

Once the huge varieties like `Velvet Queen', with flowers in a rich crimson, have three or four pairs of leaves, pinch out the growing tip of the plant between your thumb and forefinger. This makes the central stem produce lots of tall, straight side branches, creating vigorous, bulky plants. You will need to stake each one when they reach 12-18 inches

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