How to Use Iris in Your Flower Borders and Keep the Foliage Looking Good

I grew flowers for many years with absolutely no desire to ever grow iris. As a matter of fact, I was determined NOT to have them.

Any iris that I had seen growing were unkept and ugly looking. And the leaves always looked “unhealthy.” I didn’t know it back then, but all the iris in my mind’s eye were bearded iris.

One day, maybe 10 years after I had started to garden, a neighbor came over saying that she was separating her iris. She held up the bundle that she had in her hand and wanted to know if I wanted them. I said, “No!”

She was a bit surprised and asked why. So I told her just what my experience had been with irises. Even after that, she was insistent that I try them and if I didn’t like them I could pull them up and throw them away. I agreed.

I planted them and after two years they lived up to my expectation. The blooms were lovely, but the foliage was horrible.

(And by the way, just so you’ll know, the Dutch iris, old-fashioned twice bloomers, and Siberian iris in my borders have perfect foliage all the time with no special care.)

What I Thought the Problem Was

Back then I had no internet and no ready access to a library. But I had a Rodale book on garden and flower border pests and searched in them for what could be causing my iris to look so horrible.

The damage caused by the iris borer fit the description of what my iris looked like, so I looked no further. For more than 25 years I suspected that I had iris borer, although I had never seen the iris borer caterpillar that would cause the symptoms.

Just recently I’ve found conflicting information on whether or not the iris borer even resides in Virginia . Some reports say it’s east of Mississippi and north of Washington DC. Other reports say it’s as far south as Carolina.

Since various leaf spots maladies can mimic the symptoms of the borer, and the fact that I’ve never found the caterpillar in or on my iris leaves, I will now assume the problem is a variety of leaf spot common to iris.

Other than a bit of  initial research, I’ve never been interested in getting into all the scientific facts about the exact name of the problem. All I knew for sure was I was either going to find a way to have bearded iris look great in my garden (organically, of course) or they would no longer reside in my garden.

What I Do to Keep the Foliage Looking Good

I plant clumps that begin with 3 to 6 rhizomes. I let them grow for no more than 3 years OR until the foliage starts looking shabby.

The minute that happens (or the 3 years is up) I take the entire clump up.  Take out the most perfect 3 to 6  rhizomes and replant them. Trash the rest.  If the foliage starts looking poorly before bloom, I sometimes take them up, cut the foliage off to the rhizome and replant.  Then I won’t get bloom of course, but I don’t want them in my border when they look that way.  The next year they’ll be fine.

What I Don’t Do

Bad foliage on iris is such a common problem that many folks grow iris in large beds away from the rest of the garden because of that poor foliage.  That’s just not for me.

I don’t want the poor foliage, nor do I want an entire bed of iris that looks awful. (Just a tiny bit of marred foliage may be acceptable until bloom is complete.)

How I Use Iris to Enhance my Borders with Pictures to Show You

A variety of textures in your borders makes them more interesting. All  healthy iris (Bearded, twice bloomers, Siberian, Dutch, etc) have wonder vertical lines that contrast beautifully with the foliage of daylilies, sedums, and many other perennials.

Small clumps of Bearded iris are outstanding in the spring border even before they bloom.  And after they bloom they give the border so much interest and beauty.


This long border is dotted with Bearded iris.  The yellow bloom is Siberian Iris.

Using them against a back drop of fine ornamental grasses is one of my favorite ways to display them.


This pink Bearded iris in my back border with it’s back drop of ornamental grasses is breathtaking.

Bearded iris are a classic with roses, especially if you use complimentary colors as I’ve done below with the royal purple iris and brilliant coral orange Easy Livin’ Rose.


Royal purple iris and brilliant coral oragne Easy Livin’ Rose.

These royal purple Bearded iris give a wonderful welcome at the beginning of long island perennial bed.  They are complimented below with Dianthus Sweet William.


Royal purple Bearded iris complimented by Dianthus Sweet William

Dutch iris have no foliage problems. They only thing you have to do is remove some of the growth each year so they won’t take over their designated spot.

One of my favorite sights is my red knock out tree rose in bloom with white Dutch iris close by.  The display is short lived, because the white iris only blooms a week or two.  But it truly wonderful while it lasts.


Red knock-out rose and white Dutch iris.

Bearded iris are so elegant in fresh arrangements for your home. They come in all kinds of colors and are beautiful alone or with other flowers.


Pink Bearded Iris.  One of my favorites along with my Royal Purple.

 Final Thought

Use the texture and colors of iris to enhance your borders and make them even more beautiful.  Just keep in mind that the elegant Bearded iris needs a little attention to keep it looking its best.


Additional Reading:

Border – Design – Evergreens – Perennials

3 Simple Concepts to Enhance Your Flower Gardens and Borders

Your Garden – How Penelope Hobhouse Can Help Make it Better

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18 comments to How to Use Iris in Your Flower Borders and Keep the Foliage Looking Good

  • Sue T

    Theresa, what beautiful irises! And all your other flowers and ornamental grasses are so lovely too! I didn’t even know Knock-Out roses came in tree form! I was glad to see the tips on how to keep the iris foliage looking good by dividing the rhizomes every three years. Thanks for the photos and advice!

  • Sue T

    I forgot to ask in my last post: After the irises have grown for 3 years, what time of year do you dig up the clumps, select the best 3 to 6 rhizomes, and replant them? I planted some irises last fall in my daughter’s courtyard, but that’s the first and only time I’ve ever grown irises and I’m not sure when to divide them. Thanks!

  • Theresa

    Sue, it’s not just dividing the rhizomes, it’s getting rid of all but the most perfect rhizomes.
    Keeping the clumps small also enters into it.
    Glad you liked the irises. They really are elegant and come in a rainbow of colors.
    Hope you’ll try some if you don’t already have them.

  • Theresa

    I’ve found the very best time to divide them is right after they bloom, Sue. However, as I mentioned in the post, I take the entire clump up prior to bloom if I have to.
    I have also divided them in the fall.
    Iris are so easy that you can’t go wrong with almost any time you decide to divide them.

  • Alice

    Thank you so much for the iris care information. I recently did a search on the internet about this same subject. As usual your post says it all. The flowers we grow are marigold and nasturtium in the vegetable garden to deter garden pest and also to make the garden a brighter place. Some old fashion sweet peas (love the smell) along the fence in memory of my Mother, gladiolus along another fence near the vegetable garden (for my daughter) and one iris bed near the house for me. The iris bed is now 2 years old, I started trying to grow iris 3 years ago but the first attempt failed. I was following the example of my Mom who would dig a spot between some large rocks and the iris would spring up and look lovely in the rocky background. Apparently the rocky Nevada soil and the California rocky soil react in different ways to this type of planting. Each year I have purchased 6 iris bulbs and after the next fall planting the bed will be filled. I am eager to start dividing the rhizomes and sharing with friends.

  • Theresa

    Iris multiply very quickly Alice, as I’m sure you have already noticed.
    Regarding doing a search on “care of iris”, I don’t think you’ll find information that recommends what I recommend. Nonetheless, it’s what I’ve found would very well and I think you’ll find the same.
    Let me know how things go. You’ll soon have enough rhizomes to furnish everyone in your state with iris. 🙂

  • Toni

    Theresa~ What a wonderful treat to see some of your beautiful flower gardens. I haven’t tried growing domestic iris here at the house. I do truly love the wild iris that grow here in Oregon. They are much smaller than the bearded iris and only come in a two toned white and yellow or two toned vibrant purple and yellow. One day I may venture out and plant some iris in my garden. I will feel confident having your guidance.

    Thank you,

  • Theresa

    Thank YOU, Toni!

  • Flo

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Theresa!!!

    This is JUST what I’ve been looking for! I have iris in my perennial beds and have realized that I should divide them more frequently but have had low energy for several years and therefore neglected this task. Now I have a ton of flowers that are mostly not blooming. I’ve just dug up one bed that I know is mostly my standard purple and trimmed the rhizomes and foliage and replanted just so I can find the few I hope are still there — a pale yellow and a very dark purple that smells like grape juice are the two I especially hope to find! I’ve been meaning to do this with the other beds but I think you’ve just motivated me to do that THIS YEAR with ALL my iris to refresh them AND find out what’s there hopefully by the next year or two so I can decide what to keep and what not to.

    My main goal was to find out how to get iris to cooperate with other perennials. I also suffer from having a hard time throwing anything away. My parents were from the Depression Era so I suppose a lot of that rubbed off on me — being the oldest. I’m getting the idea that I need to devote a space to clumps of iris — probably at least 18-24″ and then putting them where they’ll either complement or contrast with nearby plants and be the right height for the spot as well. My iris are all over, weedy, not blooming. I can’t WAIT to get this on my calendar and do it like you say you do. It’ll be a joy to share, if I can, and throw if I need to so that I have the wonderfully beautiful iris in the mix. I’ve contemplated not having iris since I feel phlox, sedum, peonies, roses, etc., are a lot easier since they just slowly expand instead of going every-which-way like the unruly (to me, anyway)iris — but I really DON’T want to give it up! Oh — and no mulch over them, right?

    BTW — do you do something similar with tulips? I’m throwing mine out this year so I can focus on getting the iris right. They aren’t that great, anyway, but I may add some back at a later date.

    Thanks for addressing this so well! I love your pictures, too! No one else seemed to answer my questions like you just did. They just said how to grow iris — but I couldn’t contextualize it to growing them with other plants! Now I’m motivated!

  • Flo

    Oh — another question that I found answered on another site but wonder what you think about it. The small groupings I’ve planted to figure out what I have I’ve planted in a small circle ‘toes in, heels out (fans out)’. Is that what you do? Thanks!

  • Theresa

    Hi Flo,
    Glad you found the post inspiring and that it addressed more specifically what you
    needed to know. (Thanks for letting me know your thoughts on that.)

    All of my garden beds and flower borders are mulched. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the iris as to how much they’re mulched. I just mulch. My flower beds are not mulched as heavily as my garden beds. But that’s just a questions of economics. If I could afford to mulch them heavily I would.

    As you know, iris rhizomes grow best on top of the ground with the roots in the ground. But a layering of mulch won’t hurt them. Usually, by the time mine bloom their layer of mulch is thin and I can see the rhizomes through the mulch.

    I usually plant as you do – toes in and heels out. Sometimes it works out the other way. It just might give a different positioning to the iris group. Why not plant a couple of spots the opposite of that just to see what look you like the best.

    Good luck with project.

  • Theresa

    Flo, I forgot to answer your tulip question.
    I’ve grown tulips maybe 3 times in 36 years. The first two times I put them in the ground. The voles ate every one. The 3rd time I put them in big earthen pots. They looked pretty good the first year. Not too bad the 2nd. Awful the 3rd.

    I was not surprised of course, because that’s what the hybrid tulips do.

    I never felt like experimenting with them more than that. Not worth it to me.

  • Flo

    Thanks for the answers — and so quickly! Very helpful!

    And you’re welcome for telling you how helpful you were and specifically how! Your attention to detail helped ME!

    I’m feeling less bad about the tulips now! 🙂


  • KMP

    This was very helpful information! We’ve recently moved and I’m pondering what to do with a pre-existing & unruly clump of assorted irises planted by our front steps. I love the combination you posted of purple iris & coral rose – definitely going to try that. Hope you don’t mind that I pinned it (with credits to you) on my garden board.

  • Christa Montgomery

    What variety of primrose do you grow?

  • Theresa

    Christa, read this post to learn what I know about the variety I grow.

  • Barry John

    I live in the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand to be exact, and have ried my hand at growing bearded iris for the first time – I planted them in the Southern Hemisphere autumn, around March.
    Thank-you for the information you related with your use of mulch around the irises. I was worried that it might be too rich for them. They have beautiful healthy leaves at the moment, with flowers yet to delight. I will do as you suggest and divide every 2/3years. The growth here in my garden near Wellington, North Island, in our mild climate is wonderful.
    An added note,the Dutch Irises have put on a tremendous show this year – dark blue, painted with yellow centers. Even my difficult neighbor admired them! Lol

  • Theresa

    Sorry for the delayed reply Barry.
    Glad the iris are doing so well for you and that you found the post helpful.
    That’s something that your “difficult” neighbor admired them. As beautiful as my border are (especially until drought when it comes in August) my neighbors of 19 years have never once told me they were beautiful OR even looked at them!
    Folks can be amazing.
    All my best,

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