The approaching arrival of spring and the beginning of a new growing season have special meaning this year for JoAnn Burrell, owner of JoAnn’s Iris Garden on Hesse Lane in Eagle.
A lawsuit filed last year by a neighbor who wanted to close Hesse Lane to commercial traffic threatened access to the 20-year-old garden. Happily for Burrell, a judge decided in her favor in January. The road is open, and she’s turned her full attention to preparing her quarter-acre iris garden for spring.
Burrell retired in 2016 from a 37-year career as a teacher in the Boise School District. The retirement and the resolution of the lawsuit mean that “this is the first time in two years that I’ve been able to relax and be out there, spending time in the garden,” she said.
Burrell sells iris rhizomes (the underground stem from which the iris grows) to the public. Between 350 and 400 varieties are available.
“But it’s not about the selling. It’s about the joy I can bring the community,” she said. The garden plays host to picnickers, plein air painters, families taking family photos and all kinds of plant lovers.
“We’ve already had visitors come this year, even though there’s nothing in bloom yet,” Burrell said.
She isn’t sure why she chose to grow the beloved garden classics. Her “cottage business” started as a hobby.
“Somehow, I gravitated to irises, and I just enjoy them. Their beauty. And they’re easy to grow,” she said. Irises are legendarily tough and drought-tolerant. Recently, her personal garden has expanded to include dahlias, hens and chicks sedum, clematis and lupine as well as irises.
Her favorite irises are the orange and yellow varieties. She likes to off-set those warm-color blooms with more pastel shades in the garden. Certain irises, like anything else, become trendy. At the moment, black irises, or those with very dark blue or purple blooms are hot. But certain old-time varieties never seem to go out of style, she said. Persistent favorites include the pink Beverly Sills named for the famous soprano; The Starship Enterprise, a pale iris with a bright edge of magenta; Batik, a royal purple bloom with white speckles and Sugar Magnolia, a pink iris with unusually flat lower petals.
Irises fall into early blooming, mid-season and late season varieties. They usually start blooming in Burrell’s garden in April, then into May and early June, depending on the weather. In July, she hires crews of students to dig rhizomes to sell for $5 apiece.
Burrell recommends that customers visit the garden when irises are in bloom so they can see the flowers’ true colors, then pre-order. Burrell sells the rhizomes on a prepaid, first-come, first-serve basis.
Advice from the expert: Iris growing tips
1. Don’t plant them too deeply: Leave the top of the rhizome slightly exposed. Rhizomes planted too deeply will get too much moisture and rot. Burrell often plants rhizomes shallowly in mounds to ensure even more drainage. Plant them with their roots facing down. The American Iris Society recommends planting rhizomes in July, August or September.
2. Irises prefer full sun: Some make the mistake of planting them beneath young trees. They’re fine until the trees grow and make too much shade.
3. Don’t mulch right up to the rhizome: Leave a foot of space around the rhizome to let in sun and air. Don’t let fallen leaves cover the rhizome. (this is the opposite of clematis, which like sheltered, shaded roots with sun on their tendrils, noted Burrell).
4. Dividing clumps of rhizomes? Burrell says that as long as an iris continues to put up stalks and bloom, she doesn’t worry about dividing them. Sometimes, though, they will get crowded enough to push themselves up out of the ground and will stop blooming entirely. At that point, it’s a good idea to divide them.
5. Irises are tough: “You can be kind of rough on the rhizomes,” said Burrell. When she does divide them, she carefully breaks them apart (their texture is similar to fresh ginger root you see in the super market). She lets the broken rhizomes dry for a couple days to scab over before replanting them.
6. Irises might not bloom right away: Some will bloom the year after they’re planted. Some will take a couple years to bloom. This isn’t all that different from other perennials that take a couple years to get established.
7. Cutting back? Burrell doesn’t worry about cutting irises back after they bloom. She lets them die back naturally through the cool seasons then cleans up around them in the spring. Other gardeners cut irises back to 5 or 6 inches. It’s a matter of personal preference, said Burrell.
Visit JoAnn’s Iris Garden
Help the garden pay its legal bills
Though the lawsuit against the garden has been resolved, Burrell has legal fees to pay. A GoFundMe account set up last year is still accepting donations. It has raised about half of its $10,000 goal. Log on to “Save JoAnne’s Iris Garden” at gofundme.com if you would like to donate.