For the Love of Iris

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Carole Mitchell’s inspiring love of irises was sparked by her grandmother.  Mitchell, a Master Gardener since 2000, began growing them in Texas in 1962.  Her collection expanded when she moved to Illinois in 1968 because she had the space to devote to the plants and lived there long enough to establish a garden.  When Mitchell moved from Illinois to the Baldwin area, she brought seventy-five irises with her on the journey.  When she relocated to Lecompton, her collection grew to include at least 350 plants.

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Photo courtesy of Carole Mitchell

Within her iris garden, Mitchell dedicated space for different collections.  In the Dykes Medal Winner section, she planted each iris that was voted the Best Iris of the Year by the American Iris Society starting in 1927.  All plants were labeled, and she took care to plant them in chronological order.  “By planting them in chronological order, you were able to see how hybridizing advanced throughout the years and what they were striving for,” said Mitchell.  “You could tell when they were working towards a red, and when they were trying to achieve a black iris.”

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Red Douglas, 1941 Dykes Medal Winner

In the historic section of her garden, she planted irises that had been given the historic designation after being on the market for at least thirty years.  “These irises were easy to grow because they had established themselves over so many years,” said Mitchell.  Other sections of the garden included Tall Bearded Iris and Dwarf Iris.

Exactly how much space does it take to grow this many irises? “My historic garden took up about an acre,” said Mitchell.  “I planted close to two acres of irises altogether.”  When in bloom, the irises were so spectacular that the garden attracted visitors who could see the flowers from the road.  “We were on a rural bus route, and when the irises were in bloom one of the bus drivers would drive real slow past my house,” said Mitchell.

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Mitchell kept a detailed notebook and included information on how well each plant grew.  After so many years and so many irises, Mitchell is able to offer advice on growing these beautiful flowers.  She explained that the Kansas climate is well-suited to grow irises because the plants need full sun, hot summers and cold winters, and good drainage.  Mitchell always planted her irises on a hillside to achieve good drainage.  She suggested watering an iris when you first plant it, but don’t water it after that.  She advised not to mulch an iris because the mulch will make the plant retain moisture.  When you plant, leave the rhizome uncovered.  Mitchell achieved this by covering the root with dirt and then brushing dirt off the rhizome with her hand.  “If the rhizome is not exposed, the iris will not bloom because the rhizome needs to be exposed to sunlight,” explained Mitchell.  “The plant will grow, but it will not bloom.”

When Mitchell moved to a townhome three years ago, she donated the vast majority of her plants to a children’s organization to be used as a fundraiser.  Sale of the irises resulted in $5,400 for children’s youth programs.  Mitchell also donated some of her collection to the Master Gardener garden at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.

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Out of all of those irises, which were Mitchell’s favorites?  She cited Batik, Ola Kla, Victoria Falls and Titan’s Glory among those she was fond of.  Her immediate response, however, was Stairway to Heaven, which she planted on her husband’s grave when he passed away in 2017.

In her collection, Mitchell had irises that her grandma grew, and now her own children and grandchildren grow them as well.  Her story is an inspiration to pass the love of flowers down within our own families.

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