Irises of Sissinghurst
Irises are all the rage, no doubt partly fuelled by the two current exhibitions devoted to Cedric Morris, the celebrated 20th-century painter of and breeder of irises (The Garden Museum and the Philip Mould Gallery).
Did you know that it is possible to have an iris in flower virtually the whole year round? I suspect that many of you, like me, regard them as a one-shot wonder, flowering around the time of the Chelsea Flower Show. But a recent visit to Irises of Sissinghurst was a revelation. Sue Marshall’s enthusiasm for irises in all their many forms: shorts and talls, as Sue refers to her plants, and early, mid and late is infectious. ‘I never get bored, there isn’t an area that you can’t put an iris in.’ She even had an Iris Lazica that kept flowering throughout the Beast from the East. ‘I just kept dead-heading.’
‘Irises are very easy plants, once established they need very little looking after.’ Bearded irises like sunny dry conditions and normal to fairly dry soil but need to be divided every three to four years. They flower from late May to early June. ‘There are not a lot of pests and diseases associated with them. Weeding around the plants is the vital to ensure that the corms are exposed to the sun.’
Non-bearded irises need a drainage ditch, wet in summer, dry in winter, damp all year round. Sue lines their beds with polythene to keep the moisture levels high for those that need bog- or pond-like conditions such as iris ensata or Louisiana.
Iris lovers amongst you will know the spectacular show the French nursery Richard Cayeux(www.iris-cayeux.com) puts on at Chelsea each year but you won’t know that many of the plants are grown by Sue. ‘He approached me some years ago asking if he sent over 600 plants in August could I grow them on?’ 3 Gold Medals on the arrangement continues.
Sue’s love of gardening began at an early age. Her father, a colliery manager in the North East, had a gardener who encouraged her as a child. ‘He made me grow all sorts of things including pansies which I would enter into shows. My father loved bedding plants and being a Northerner, leeks. A lot of miners had gardens.’
Sue moved to London and worked in the Local Authority housing department which is where she met her husband, Harry. ‘We always had a little garden wherever we lived. Working as a Welfare Officer I needed the therapy gardening provides. My colleagues used to say, ‘Sue switches off when she gets to the garden gate.’’
Irises of Sissinghurst was started by Margaret Roberts in 1999 and Sue, having by then done an RHS correspondence course and moved to Kent, began helping her. When Margaret retired, Sue found herself taking over the nursery. ‘Harry and I never thought we would run a nursery.’ Tucked away down a little country lane, Irises of Sissinghurst is a remarkable operation. Sue and Harry with help from Sophie Leathart sell hundreds of plants each year to customers all over Britain and Europe. The beds of irises are immaculately regimented. Their superb website has an extremely useful section entitled ‘Iris care throughout the year’ and includes gardens to visit which have good displays of irises as well as a section on books devoted to irises some published by the British Iris Society.
There are several local iris breeders, including Thelma Naylor who specialises in historic varieties, Olga Wells and Brian Hersey, many of whose irses have Invicta or Wealden in their name and has also has bred several named after Kent villages around Maidstone, Headcorn, Chiddingstone, Staplehurst and Sutton Valence as well as Kentish castles, Leeds, Walmer, Hever and Deal and is now breeding a range named after Kentish country houses, Penshurst and Godinton.
Surprisingly black irises are the best sellers, such as the ultra-chic Chrysographes with thin elegant flowers. They need acid soil but can be successfully grown in pots.
For those of you who can’t get enough of them, reblooming or remontant irises flower in early summer and later usually in September of October. A caveat: they are not guaranteed every year depending on the weather. There are numerous kinds with flowers in every hue. The website has excellent photographs of the many tantalising beautiful plants available.
‘A garden without irises is unthinkable. A garden with only the tall bearded is only partly complete. Let us not forget the charming and intriguing species,’ writes N. Leslie Cave in ‘The Iris’ published in 1959.
Iris of Sissinghurst can be visited by appointment or on advertised selling days.