The irises are blooming well, even on plants set out last summer. The terrible freeze in April aborted some of the flower stalks, but most of them came through without the least damage.
The spring drouth has saved them from the usual torrents that batter the flowers to shreds, and heat has not stewed the open blooms (as sometimes happens). We have been spared hail and windstorms and the result has been glorious mornings in which the iris has been seen in its superlative beauty.
Among flowers it has no rivals for the exceptional combination of beauty and magnificence. Peonies have a narrow color range, roses lack the beauty of form of the iris, dahlias are rather coarse, daffodils have no color range worth speaking of and lilies, though equally beautiful, lack iris colors and in any case cannot be used for spectacular garden displays as irises can.
Naturally, the iris has endless faults. It can be ruined by borers and rot, its stems are liable to keel over if the open blooms are rained on and blown about, it requires an absence of weeds, and its habit of growth positively invites weeds to sprout among its network of fat rhizomes, so that hand weeding is necessary.
Worst, perhaps, its blooming season is only three weeks or so, and in this respect it is inferior to the rose, daffodil, dahlia, lily and so on. I have known iris lovers to give up on the iris, at least to cut back on the amount of space devoted to it. Often a gardener, driven mad by the iris' beauty, gives almost all the garden to it, with a few roses. As the years go by, the irises are reduced and the roses increased, simply because the roses have such a long blooming season, as many months as the iris has weeks.
No rose garden, however, at its peak of bloom in a spectacular year, even approaches the glory of an iris garden. But in small town gardens, in which the iris, like the rose, demands the very best spot in full sun in the best soil, it can be depressing after the iris season to see only sheaves of dull green leaves.
The gardener himself has to come to his own compromises and sense of balance in his garden, and it will vary according to the taste of the gardener. For sheer glory it is unarguable that the iris surpasses all garden flowers in brilliance, purity of color and excitement, but as a "useful" garden flower I suppose it must rank beneath many others. My advice is to try a bed of irises and see for yourself, keeping in mind that the work will be the same as a rose bed, and the reward will be three or four brief weeks in the spring instead of flowers all summer and fall.
Blues are better than formerly, and such standard kinds as 'Sapphire Skies,' 'Cloud Baron' and 'Maestro Puccini' give an agreeable range of mid-blue, while there are plenty of very pale blues and a few dark blues like 'Shipshape' that almost everyone likes.
The commonest error in choosing irises, I think, lies in avoiding the so-called sweet pea colors. When I was a boy we had roughly millions of irises that were muddy tones of lilac, magenta, lavender and general puce. Our "pinks" were pink-toned puce, and our "blues" were blue-toned lavenders, and we had no lemons, canaries or full strong yellows. We were also dismally short on whites. So when greatly improved clear colors began to appear, we went mad for them and avoided lavenders, off-rose, mulberry and lilac like the plague. We had had enough of them, having had nothing else.
It immediately became clear, however, that clear yellow and clear blue are dull by themselves, and only came to life when lilacs and lavenders and rose and mulberry were added here and there. The modern pinks, things like 'Pink Sleigh' and so forth, are a tremendous help, soft and clear and generally priceless for their enhancement of light blue.
The real key to a beautiful effect is the inclusion of plenty of yellow. Things like 'Lemon Reflection' are not at all brilliant but very soft, and soft yellow does virtual miracles for pink, blue, white and lavender.
My own preference is to avoid reds, by and large, though a few like 'Post Time' do no harm and may be thought to add richness, and fortunately there are so many superb rich purples (an excessively rare color in flowers) that the only danger is being seduced by them and using so many that the effect is heavy or funereal. I would use the gorgeous rich purples very sparingly, and hardly any whites, though they are of the very highest quality.
I am speaking of a small bed or two for irises in a small garden. If there is endless space and labor, there is no reason to be stingy with whites or purples or reds or two-tone sorts that combine red and yellow or white and purple in the same flower. The "blacks" are almost black and gorgeous in themselves and in a large garden you should not deprive yourself of them.
But when only 50 plants, say, can be accommodated, it is my strong impression that virtually all of them should be clear, pure mid-blues and various clear yellows of different intensities, and these should constitute about half the entire planting. Maybe a fifth of the planting should be pink and rose, and another fifth should be lavenders and lilacs, while the rest could be whites, reds, bronzes, blends and purples. These last would amount to only 10 in the 50, and I personally would avoid almost all plicatas (flowers of one color stitched with a border of another color), almost all variegatas (red and yellow in the same flower), neglectas (violent contrasts in the same flower of white and purple, though roughly a million descendants of 'Melodrama' are clean and reasonably nonviolent, including the agreeable 'Lord Baltimore') and any other iris that shrieks and screams about the garden to interfere with the soft pastel blues and yellows and pinks.
It should be said that if irises were chosen blindfolded and planted alphabetically, with violent yellows, blacks, reds, purples and everything else all jumbled up together, the result would nevertheless be splendid. I have seen it done and have done it myself, in the gorgeous strong light of our springtime, all comes well.
No gardener should be intimidated, in other words, by anything an old-timer might say. It is merely my own observation over the decades, and my own taste, that makes me strongly suggest heavy concentrations on the clear pastels all together. But if, trying the soft clear colors as I suggest, you feel it all looks a bit tame and refined (for our age is one of bombs and hoopla) you can easily gross things up by adding the more violent colors in quantity.
A word about violent yellows. I go quite crazy for them. Rich, full, brassy yellows do not seem to me nearly as objectionable, or nearly as overpowering, as the purples, reds, whites or bicolors, though I guess the yellows could be overdone like anything else. But since they are such favorites of mine, I am more charitable to them, but even they lose effect if there are not plenty of blues, pinks and lavenders. All of them are best planted in July and August, and should be slaved over throughout the year in readiness for the violent storm in May that commonly blasts them at the height of their glory. All I can say about it is that year by year the iris is worth whatever it takes, and when all the drawbacks and disasters and work are totted up, the iris is still more rewarding than any other flower ever beheld.