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[iris-talk] Re: Iris Beds at Arkansas State Capitol: long

From: celia storey <storey@aristotle.net>

Patrick writes:

>I was in Little Rock over
>Labor Day and checked out the beds at the Capitol.  They looked pretty good
>to me.  Nothing seemed folded, spindled or mutilated. <snip> I would like
>to know a bit about how
>long the beds sponsored by the Central Arkansas Iris Society have been in
>place, how the project is funded, and how many people are required to keep
>it looking as good as it does. <snip>

You've seen those garden signs that say "My garden was at its peak two
weeks ago -- you missed it?" Well, our beds were at their worst a day
before you came. Our third Saturday cleanup crew cleared out a good bit of
fan-rot and even dunked a few sickies in dilute bleach to discourage
Southern blight, which has been rampant this year in spite of our drought.
Go figure.

How many people? We have 10 faithful workers on our two crews, although not
everyone shows up every month. Four people come to every session. Sometimes
it's just Linda Bell, Wendell Hall, me and my mother. But more often we
have five to seven, including the charming Phyllis Newton of this list
(hiya Phyllis!), our weed gourmet Loice Peek, an energetic new member named
Maureen Corder who wants to become a garden judge and others I should name
but won't because you people don't know them and probably never will. We
clean on the first and third Saturdays. When we dig plants we ask the
general membership for help. This year we had 20 dig volunteers over three
days, including one brand-new member who answered an appeal in the
newsletter! By comparison, 33 members volunteer to man our booth at the
annual Flower and Garden show, and almost every one of our 200 members
comes to see the Iris Show. So the beds are not our club's most popular
activity by far.

The beds were almost abandoned two years ago, before our daffy, darling
president Lucie Burley's single-minded enthusiasm for the society
re-energized everything. Many of our veteran members are very elderly;
there had been an ugly fight over selecting and purchasing plants; when the
Capitol made us move them to a new location, names were scrambled and
feelings were needlessly trampled; responsibility for the beds would fall
on one or two sturdy women who made themselves sick trying to do all the
work and then hated everyone for expecting them to.
But Lucie inspired Linda Bell -- a whirlwind social sciences teacher -- to
take an interest. Linda had no idea what she was getting into when she
agreed. The beds were loaded with hundreds of plants that, although placed
behind namestakes each and every one, were nameless. In the past the beds
even accepted unregistered seedlings, so we had all kinds of confusion
running around in there. Some were donated LAs, the sickest LAs you have
ever laid eyes on. I mean three-year rhizomes as big as your pinky finger.
It was scandalous. And we had nine very, very sad spurias in there, too.
TBs, LAs and spurias, all thrown in together. And they were all buried in
bermuda and nutgrass. The soil was hard-packed clay, green and black in
many places but usually dry as the Sahara and hard as rock.

The secretary of state's office disliked them rather intensely, as you
might imagine.

Linda and Lucie naively began trying identify the standouts that can always
be located in an older iris planting -- Batik, for instance. Immortality.
We took dozens of photos, spent days looking up checklists and finally
realized the only sensible course was to dump out everything and start
anew. We did this over two years. We emptied one bed last year, the other
this year. And we hauled in truckloads of municipal compost to improve the
soil. The compost was donated by our local municipal contractor. The
tilling was done by convict labor. The club allocated $500 to purchase
materials and rhizomes, and we took up donations to buy the plaques. I
forget what they cost, but it was a pretty penny. The Secretary of State
poured the footings for us and did all the installment -- all for free.

Now we know the name and particulars of every one of our irises, many of
which were purchased from Sutton's and Woodland Iris Gardens, of this list.
We have made an attempt to add the creations of our state's hybridizers,
too, buying cultivars from local growers Mark Grumbine and Len Michel and
accepting donations from members who were on-their-honor-certain they had
the right plant (always a risk).

You ask:
>I have never grown bearded iris and was interested in how some of them at
>the Capitol were planted on little hills.  I know they like good drainage,
>but what happens when the rhizomes get longer?

You noticed those are concrete planters holding our beds, and they are
surrounded by sidewalks, which have footings. Underground sprinklers line
the inside of those concrete walls, and sometimes they leak. Although our
amendments improved drainage, it's still not marvelous, and we've found
planting on mounds cuts losses. The mounds settle a lot by spring. The
rhizomes tend to burrow as they make roots, and the ultimate level comes
out just about right.

As for increases growing over the side of mounds, we dig out these plants
every year, placing back five rhizomes for next year's display. When we
haven't lifted two-year clumps to separate them, the next year's growth has
been so massive we've seen too much fungus and leaf spot.
>Do you find that your planting at the Capitol brings you new members?

Umm, in Lucie Burley's iris society, everything brings in new members.
Standing in line at the grocery store is a recruitment opportunity.
We think our presence in the beds is better advertising than the beds
themselves. We all talk to passers-by compulsively. But the beds allow us
an annual shot at TV coverage and newspaper wild-art photos in spring.
Lucie has us carry membership blanks on work crew days.

>I guess it was
>designed not only to look good but also to discourage those who might want
>a souvenir.  Do you lose irises that way?
We've only lost one plant in two years to theft. SUNSHINE BOY was ripped
out in bloom, leaving his little roots poking out of the ground. We also
wonder if vandals sometimes rearrange our namestakes. So we doublecheck
them using our maps.

Our plans include involving the membership in selecting newer cultivars to
replace those that don't seem to like their location or plants that look
too much like everything else or plants that we all decide are pug-ugly or
smart-alecky plants with bad attitudes. We'll ask members to vote.

We're toying with rewarding our hard workers with some sort of perk. We
don't know what yet.

We want to use the third Saturday session to involve youth members ... but
we have none so far. Well, we have one, but she can't walk.

And we're working with the state capitol groundskeeper (our new best
friend!) to add a bit of off-season spot color with companion plantings,
perhaps pansies in the winter.

This April for the re-dedication of the beds and our 400-pound plaques, I
wrote a history sketch which follows in another post.

Little Rock, Arkansas, USDA Zone 7b
257 feet above sea level,
average rainfall about 50 inches (more than 60" in '97)
average relative humidity (at 6 a.m.) 84%.
moderate winters, hot summers ... but lots of seesaw action in all seasons

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