Stunning Tall Bearded Irises - A Hobby Gardener's Guide to Growing Iris and Selling on eBay
The tall graceful flower that dances in the wind!
© May 2012
Irises are my favorite flower of all time. I got hooked on them after attending the Mid-State Iris Association's annual sale over ten years ago. Each year I continued to go back to the sale, and since I bought lots of them each time, they eventually asked me if I wanted to join their group. Well, that was the beginning of my love affair with the tall bearded irises, and soon after the launching of Cathy's Hobby Garden, which specialized in tall bearded irises and fancy daylilies.
Planting Care & Instruction - Irises should not be planted too deeply! Here in Tennessee, our winters are mild and we can plant them with the tops of their rhizomes exposed. They should look like little boats floating in the dirt.
You'll want to plant your irises in a spot that gets plenty of sunshine and has good drainage. They do well in raised beds. I grew mine on a hillside. Full sun is best, though they can handle dappled shade. You'll get much better bloom if you plant them in a sunny location as opposed to a shady one.
I was told when I first started growing irises, that they shouldn't be planted in mulch because they might stay too wet which could cause root rot; however, I had some planted in a mulched beds and discovered that those were much bigger, better rhizomes than the ones that weren't mulched and had to compete with a bunch of weeds. I decided to begin mulching the rows. Since I had so many rows of irises, I didn't get through the job by the end of the growing season, so I was able to see for myself that the ones in the rows I'd mulched with hardwood were much larger rhizomes than the ones in the rows I didn't get to. This is because the irises in the mulch were getting more nutrients than the others were getting from the bare soil. Weeds were also taking nutrients from the soil and the mulched rows had less weeds than the ones without any mulch. My mother made the mistake of putting fresh mulch on her irises. You don't want fresh - it steals the nutrients from the soil instead of putting it back in. You need the well rotted (black) mulch. It will feed your plants as it continues to break down further into the soil.
Don't expect your irises to bloom the first spring after you plant them. Some may, but most of the time they just grow more foliage and multiply rhizomes their first year, and bloom the next. It isn't unusual though for some irises to take several years before they bloom. I almost threw out one bunch of irises I had that didn't bloom for four years. Good thing I didn't. The fifth year was the charm, and those irises were amazingly gorgeous when they finally did bloom! "Reoccurring Delight" didn't reoccur often, but when they do - Wow Fantastic!!!
Irises are very easy to grow. They don't require a lot of water and are relatively drought tolerant. However, if you want to have beautiful buds on your irises at bloom time, they need to take in a sufficient amount of water. They'll need about one inch of water a week. A rain gauge helps to measure how much rain is received. If not enough is received during the week, you can place a square or rectangular pan (such as for baking brownies or a cake) on the ground and turn on your sprinklers. When about an inch of water is setting inside the pan, it's time to turn the water off.
Fertilizing Your Irises - Use a fertilizer that is low in nitrogen since too much of it causes rhizomes to rot. Fertilizing only needs to be done one to two times a year. If you only do it once, do it in the fall after bloom season. I like to feed them in the spring too since it produces those fabulous, bigger and better blooms when you do.
Talk to different growers and you'll get lots of different recommendations, such as using alfalfa pellets or cafe's formula (to supply calcium and strengthen the stalks). The member who shared his method of using cafe's milk has some of the most beautiful blooms in the Mid-State Iris Association's annual shows. He also uses a Rainbow brand fertilizer that is low in nitrogen and high in phosphate. The cafe's milk actually lightens the color of the soil around his irises. I also think it makes the ground around his irises harder when the soil's dry. Helping him dig irises required us to get a hose and soak that rock hard dirt down good before our garden forks and spades would penetrate it.
I tried several fertilizers over the years and my recommendation as a result of these trials is to use either Triple Super Phosphate or Super Phosphate in the spring (mid to late March) and to use a time release fertilizer in the fall (late September to late October). Some growers say it's better to actually work the fertilizer into the soil, but I had too many irises to do that, so I just donned my goatskin gloves and scattered it around by hand salt-and-pepper style.
Weed & Pest Control & Prevention - Weeds are a pain! No matter what you do to control and prevent them, they find a way to beat you. Some growers use a grass-out type of spray that doesn't harm the irises, but I didn't like to use those since I had other plants growing close to the irises, such as the daylilies that I didn't want to take a chance on harming. Pulling for me was the safest way, though it definitely wasn't the easiest. When things got too badly out of hand, and they did often, I would till up another row, move stuff to the new row, and then till up the area that I just moved plants from, and so on and so forth. Pests were a problem that I had to use chemicals to control. Fungus is also a problem in Tennessee, so I used a regimen that would help with both insects and disease. The fungicide I settled with finally was Mancozeb and for insecticide I used Liquid Seven, putting them in the same spray can together and spraying once a week through the growing season as a preventative. This worked very well for both the irises and the daylilies.
Hybridizing is fun! Starting your own irises isn't hard. It does take quite a bit of time when you have a lot of beautiful cultivars and you want to try to cross all of them. I would spend hours every day during bloom season, when the weather permitted it, going from iris bud to iris bud to hand pollinate fresh newly opened buds. Some hybridizers don't even wait for the flowers to open themselves, but will carefully force buds open that are nearly ready in order to deposit pollen from the antlers they've collected from one iris on to another iris' stigmas (liplike structures on the underside of the style arms- each bud contains three unless a fluke of nature causes there to be less, or an extra in rare cases). Label your crosses with weatherproof labels. The female (receiving parent) is listed first, followed by x, and then the male (pollen parent) is listed second (i.e., Louisa's Song x Decadence). I found it helpful to stake stems with pods on them to keep the wind from breaking them off or blowing them over onto the ground.
If pollination was successful, the ovary that houses the seeds begins to swell. This should be evident within seven to ten days. Seeds are ready to collect in the fall when the pods turn brown and begin to open. Keep an eye on the pods since once they begin to open the seeds will soon spill out of them. Some hybridizers loosely tie a piece of panty hose around the pod while it is still green so the seeds won't spill out of it before they have a chance to collect them. Once the pods begin to crack open, you can go ahead and remove the seeds. Let the seeds dry out of the pods for a couple days inside your house so they don't have moisture on them when you package them up. Put them in dry envelopes so that they won't mold.
You can plant the seeds in nursery pots in the fall or early winter and leave the pots outside where rain and freezing temperatures will stratify the seeds naturally, or they can be started inside. If started inside you will need to soak the seeds for ten days, changing the water daily. After the ten days of soaking, put the seeds in the freezer for three hours, take them out and put them in the refrigerator (vegetable crisper drawer) inside a black plastic bag until you're ready to plant them. Don't leave too long in the refrigerator - plant within two or three weeks. It may take awhile for sprouts to appear - wait patiently. You can put the pots outside if you wish and cover the pots lightly with a little straw to insulate them a bit through the winter, or you can keep the pots inside until spring. Here in Tennessee, I prefer to have the pots outside sitting in a flower bed until I'm ready to plant them later on in the spring.
Iris seedlings take on characteristics from their parents, but they will not be identical replicas of either the pollen or the pod parent. Their genetics work much the same way as that of humans, where each child (unless an identical twin) has their own appearance with some of the features of their parents, but different. This is what makes hybridizing so fun - you don't know what you're going to get and are hoping for something spectacular and unique. Each seed that germinates has it's own identity.
Selling on eBay - List cheaply! I like to start every iris auction with a low opening bid of just ninety-nine cents to encourage bidding on each one. Although my auctions start out low, bids on most of them climb drastically, especially near auction closing time. Through trial and error, I learned the best time for iris auctions to end is after 7pm on a Saturday night. Having several different iris auctions going simultaneously is also a must. Try to have at least fifteen going at any given time. Offer combined shipping for multiple auctions won within a specified time frame. I normally allowed seven days for combining auction wins and requested payment within three days unless they were still bidding on my other auctions.
The prettier the flower the better. A gorgeous photo sells the flower, so make sure you take several pictures at various different angles and chose the loveliest one for your eBay gallery photo. For each listing, eBay permits you to post one photo free. One is all you'll need, so there's no need to pay extra to have more photos in your listing. Just choose the best one.
Cleaning, Packaging & Mailing Irises - The best way to send irises is bare root.
Cut leaves back to about 6-8 inches leaving foliage in a fan like shape. Remove soil from the rhizome and roots as much as possible before soaking in a sink or bucket with water and a little bleach. I don't measure the bleach but estimate that I add about 1/2 cup of bleach to 1-2 gallons of water. Don't leave the rhizomes in the water very long (ten minutes at most). I use a toothbrush to gently scrub the rhizome and clean foliage.
After cleaning the rhizomes, set them somewhere inside your air-conditioned home to dry. Don't put them out in the sun on a hot day. Sun-baking isn't good for them when they're out of the ground.
You can package the rhizomes in shredded newspaper or pine shavings, bare root, once they've air dried. Rhizomes can easily live out of soil for many weeks. I've found ones I lost in packaging material that I'd saved, months later, hidden in the pine shavings. I planted them up in pots inside since it was winter at the time. They broke dormancy and grew into healthy happy iris plants (fed liquid Miracle Grow like the rest of my house plants until I was able to plant them outside after the frost free date in spring).
Carefully select and label your irises - If you want to make money selling irises in the future, you want to carefully choose what irises you grow based on what you think will sell the best and be most in demand. For future selling it's crucial to know your irises registered name, so be sure to label your irises when you plant them. Use a permanent weatherproof labeling method. A cattle marker paint-type pen and PVC plastic piping works pretty well. Sharpies will eventually wear off - so you won't want to use them. Take your time selecting your irises and check several mail order nurseries before you place your orders since some will have better prices than others.
Some of my favorite iris growers are: Sutton's, Snowpeak, Rockytop (here in Tennessee), Mid-America, Schreiners, Country Delight, Bayview, Keppel, and Superstition.