Maria is a Master Gardener, public health educator, grant-writer, artist, photographer, editor, & proofreader. She lives in coastal Alabama.
Just One of the Multitude of Gorgeous Bearded Irises
Dividing Irises Is Easy
The best time to divide irises is July through September. If you live in the South, however, they can be divided throughout the winter, but disturbing the roots in late winter will probably result in few, if any, flowers the following spring.
I originally wrote this article when living in north central Alabama (in Zones 7b and 8a), but after seven years in central Florida (Zone 9a), we now live in coastal Alabama (Zone 8b). Suffice it to say, my success in growing bearded irises has varied from place to place.
I had always heard irises will not live as far south as Florida. I took some of my favorite irises with me to Florida, determined to prove "them" wrong. They lived a few years, but got smaller and smaller each year. I divided and moved them in January of 2014, and, to my surprise, one of them bloomed the following April. Usually when moved that late, they pout, and refuse to bloom that spring. After blooming that year and the next, they again grew progressively smaller each year until they finally died. So "they" were right.
This article is about much more than how to divide irises. I will share what I have learned not only about how to divide irises, but also about raising irises, including their requirements, their tolerances, how to plant them (it's not the usual way), and even when to trash them.
I have been raising and dividing irises for many years, and have learned a lot about what works with them and what does not. They are easy to grow, drought-tolerant, and not overly choosy about their soil. Of course, the better the soil, the better they will grow, bloom, and show off for you.
I gained a love of bearded irises from my mother. Many people think of irises as old-fashioned flowers, but I find them to be exotic-looking and magnificent. They are one of many plants that gardeners often refer to as "pass-along plants" because they can be passed along from one gardener to another without harming the parent plant. That is how I received many of my irises, but first they must be divided.
Irises' Most Important Needs
Irises have few needs. But they really need those few things:
- Full sun — this means no less than six hours of sun per day.
- Well-drained soil.
- Rhizomes mostly above the soil.
- No mulch on the rhizomes.
Rhizomes and Roots
In the above photo, you see the rhizome and roots of an iris. The large brown part is the rhizome. The long, slender, almost hair-like roots are the only part that should be underground. After planting them, sprinkle a good granular or polymer-coated fertilizer on the soil, and water it in. Be sure not to put the fertilizer in the planting hole, as doing this with granular (slow-release) fertilizer can burn the roots. I use Osmocote, shown near the end of this article. I learned about Osmocote in my master gardener training.
Properly planted irises should look like little potatoes lying on the ground, as shown in the next photo. These are very drought-tolerant plants, which means they don't like a lot of water. So, if planted underneath the soil, or if mulched, the rhizomes will eventually rot due to excess moisture.
Over-crowded Irises Ready to be Divided
The rhizomes should look like little potatoes lying on the ground, with only the long, slender, almost hair-like roots beneath the soil.
Irises Too Crowded
The above photo was taken in February or March in Zone 7b after a very mild winter. The irises had just begun a period of new growth. They appeared to have been planted correctly by the previous owner of that property, but they had grown far too crowded. It was past time for them to be divided.
Again, the best time to do this is from July through September, but it can be done at any time in the South. I usually do it in late autumn or winter because it is often too hot from July through September.
A Temporary Fix for Over-Crowded Irises
If you do not have time to dig up the irises and separate them, there is another way. Be aware, this is only a temporary fix.
Take a good look at your crowded irises. You will see some of the older, original rhizomes, from which newer plants have grown. Now that the newer plants are large enough, the older, "parent" plant can be removed. In the photo above I circled in yellow some older rhizomes to be removed.
Take a sharp knife or, if stooping down is a problem for you, use a sharp shovel to sever the connection between the parent plant and the younger off-shoot plants. Then simply pick up the older rhizome and examine all sides of it.
If that older rhizome has little rows of holes made by iris borers, (they're usually on the bottom) or if it is shriveled, soft, or has any wet rot, put it into the trash can. DO NOT put into your compost bin, because you could introduce the borers or any mold or disease from the rot into your compost.
On the other hand, if it has a tiny new sprout on the side, give it a chance. Plant it and see what happens. If it has no roots, just lay it on bare soil, and press some soil up to it, but do not cover it. Then just give nature time to do her work. I have actually seen these plants take root when just lying on the ground.
Now you want to know about the pink circles, right? Those are around two plants that I dug up and placed in another bed. The others I left in the same location until I decided what to do with them.
Never Mulch Irises
Iris rhizomes should never be mulched. This encourages moisture which will cause them to rot.
The above photo is an example of wet rot from too much moisture. This iris was probably planted in a good place, but mondo grass nearby had encroached on the irises in this bed. One of them had to go. It was the mondo grass. Another problem causing wet conditions were the weeds and leaves that needed to be removed. In autumn, be sure to remove fallen leaves from around your irises.
As you can see, the entire rhizome had not been damaged, so it can be cut or broken off at the point where the yellow line is drawn. The rotted portion should be trashed, then the remainder of the rhizome planted in a sunnier spot away from weeds and invasive plants such as mondo grass.
A Shriveled Rhizome Due to Wet Rot
Never, ever put mulch
of any type on top of
your iris rhizomes.
These are some of my favorite gardening tools:
I ordered a group of six irises from Springhill Nursery — one each of six colors: burgundy, purple, blue, white, yellow & purple, and orange. The orange one was a free "bonus" plant. This white & purple shown above wasn't one of them. There was a white one that appeared to have died. Then this one came up in its place. Imagine my surprise when it bloomed.
I suppose it is possible that the growers sent me the wrong one. Of the six plants, only 4 survived. The free one and the burgundy one quickly shriveled up and rotted.
Iris Day Is May 8
Did you know there is an Iris Day? It's May 8th every year, and is celebrated from late April through mid-June worldwide with festivals that include art shows, fun runs, beauty pageants, and much, much more.
The photo below is of another iris whose name I don't know. It was on the property of our former home when we bought it, and it quickly became one of my favorites. It didn't bloom the first year we were there, then we had some tree limbs removed and, with the additional sunlight, it began blooming each spring. Those irises demand their sunshine!
Osmocote: My favorite fertilizer for perennials:
Digging in the Dirt
If you're like me, you're happier digging in the dirt, uh, I mean soil, than doing just about anything else. If you have garden stories, especially iris stories to share, please let me know. I would love to hear them.
Thank you for visiting my irises and me. I hope you enjoyed the article, and maybe learned a bit about this lovely, exotic-looking flower.
Questions & Answers
Question: I have a 5-year-old bearded iris bed and great greens but they have never flowered. What can I do?
Answer: By "great greens" do you mean great leaves? If they are not blooming, it could be that they are planted too deeply. It could also be they are not getting enough sun. Irises are sun-loving plants and need at least 6 hours of sun per day.
Question: The iris that I bought are bulbs. What is the difference on planting them?
Answer: I think you must have bought Dutch iris or Japanese iris. They can be planted rather than laid on the ground as are the rhizomes of bearded iris. The bulbs are winter hardy in zones 5 - 9. They should be planted 6 - 8 inches deep, and look best if planted in groups. If you want them to multiply and come back year after year, plant them in well-drained soil that is warm and mostly dry in summer.
Question: My mother used to cut off the leaves about 8 inches up when she transplanted iris. I think that was to off-set the root shock. What do you, the writer of this article, recommend, should I cut my irises' leaves or leave them long?
Answer: What she did is called fanning the iris. When cut like that, they look like an unfolded fan. It's done in the late spring or summer after they have bloomed. It makes transplanting easier, as removing the weight of the long sword-like leaves helps the plants remain stable until the roots have time to become re-established. I do recommend fanning them when transplanting, as well as every year after bloom season.
Question: If my irises are planted too deep, can I just remove some of the soil covering them, or must I lift them and start over?
Answer: It depends on how deep they are. If you can expose at least the top half of the rhizome by removing some soil, it should be OK for a while. What I often do is use a garden trowel to lift them a bit, then push some surrounding soil underneath them. This, too, is a temporary fix, but I have done it when I didn't have time to truly "lift" and replant them. Thanks for reading my article, and for your question.
Question: Which way do you orient the iris' rhizome so that the flower faces outward?
Answer: Because iris flowers are the same all the way around, they don't face any particular direction. However, the rhizomes get longer and longer, seeming to creep across the soil as they grow, so I would suggest putting the end with the leaves facing an area that will give them space to grow across the planting bed. If you have plenty of space, it doesn't matter which way they face.
Question: I’ve recently dug up my father’s very neglected iris garden. Many single irises have very long rhizomes. He said to just cut them in half. I see in your picture that you seem to have done the same. How do I know if there is a good cutting point?
Answer: You can cut or break off the pups at the point where they are attached to the "mother plant". If you cut them, be sure to use a clean, sharp knife WITHOUT a serrated edge. Some of the older ones may appear shriveled or have rows of tiny holes in them. The shriveled ones have some rot. The little holes are from iris borers. Put either of these in the trash. Don't compost them. I have been known to cut off the shriveled parts, then plant the remaining part. If you do this, wash the knife very well before using it on additional rhizomes to avoid spreading disease to other plants.
Question: Do irises need fertilizing? If so, when during the growing year, what type fertilizer is best to use, and how much?
Answer: I fertilize in mid-to-late April with either bone meal, or a fertilizer low in nitrogen, but primarily with a higher phosphate number. I'm speaking of the 3 numbers on fertilizer bags. We call them the NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium). Fertilizers high in nitrogen will produce lush green foliage, but will not help flowering -- or fruiting (such as on tomatoes) for that matter. Excess nitrogen can also cause bacterial rot. It also depends on where you live. I live in central Florida where there is excess phosphorous in the soil. We have lots of phosphate mines. Also there are lots of houses built from concrete block, covered in concrete "stucco". The phosphates from the concrete leaches into the soil, so around here, we use fertilizers with a low or very low middle number. More than you wanted to know, right?
Question: I have transplanted irises into places they are not getting enough sun. It is the end of May would it be OK to move the plants in too much shade right now? l did not know you should not mulch directly on top of the rhizomes.
Answer: The best time to move them is July through September, but if you live in the deep south, you can move them most anytime, assuming a mild winter. Be aware that if you move them in late winter or early spring, they probably won't bloom until the following year.
© 2012 MariaMontgomery
Do You Raise Irises? Do You Need to Divide Your Irises?
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on December 04, 2019:
They can be grown from seed, but I have never seen iris seed for sale. Most people grow them by separating the pubs from the mother plant. That would be cumbersome for commercial growers, though, and would take too long. I'm afraid I can't help you with this. I wish I could.
Javier on November 29, 2019:
I m interesting for farming iris/oris, in my countries lot of garden's for farming this flowers but I can' t found the oris seed
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on November 19, 2019:
Hi Diane, Sorry to take a week to reply, but we just moved, too, and I am still trying to find things. You should be able to dig them up in January. Planting them that close to spring, they may not bloom until the following year, but it's worth a try. I did move some to central Florida, but they lasted only a couple of years, then died. I was in Zone 9a at the time. I'm now in south Alabama in Zone 8b, the same zone as Tallahassee. All my research shows they should do well in this zone. Japanese iris and Dutch irises also do well in both Zones 9b and 9a. I hope this info helps you, and good luck with your move.
Diane White on November 11, 2019:
Hi, I am moving from ky to tallahassee, fl in the very beginning of Jan. Can I dig up some of the iris and plant in fl in Jqnuary? I have bearded iris and I'm afraid if I dig them up now which is Nov. 12 they might not make it to January. Any suggestions when and how to dig up for fl?
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on September 15, 2019:
Hi Virginia, they are among my favorites, too. It's the perfect time to move them. I'm glad you have a sunny spot to put them. You should get lots of flowers next spring. Be sure to let me know how they do.
Virginia Allain from Central Florida on August 30, 2019:
Iris are among my favorite flowers, as my mom always had lovely ones. I'm going to move my ones in New Hampshire over to a new (more sunny) bed. It's the end of August, but I see in your article that the timing is OK. I'll make sure to leave part of the rhizome above ground and not to mulch them.
Hopefully, next spring I'll get some flowers which I've been missing the last 2 seasons. Lots of big trees in my yard.
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on July 09, 2019:
Hi, Janice. If you clean all the soil off of them, then store them in a cool, dry place, they should be fine for a while. If it were me, I would lay them on top of the ground, and put a little soil over the long slender roots until I could see my kids. At that time you can simply lift them up and put them in a bag for the kids. Thanks for reading my article, and for commenting.
Janice Kinder on June 24, 2019:
I divided my bearded irises the last week of June. Was it too early? (I live in Connecticut.) Also, I replanted, but I have a ton of good rhizomes left. How long can I keep them, because I want to give some to my kids, but I might not see them for a week or two. How long will they last?
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on June 11, 2019:
It could be one or more of several things. If they aren't getting enough sun, they will stop blooming. Full sun is 6 or more hours of sun per day.
Often, soil will gradually build up around and even over the rhizomes. This can be caused by heavy rains washing the soil onto them, or just pushing into the soil as they grow. You can "lift" them if they have gradually gotten too deep.
Look for horizontal rows of tiny holes on the rhizomes caused by iris borers. If you find that, spray with an insecticide. I use insecticidal soap or Neem oil. The soaps will need too be reapplied after rain or irrigation. The oils will melt and slide off in intense heat. If borer damage is really bad, you can cut off the compromised rhizomes and put them in the trash, not your compost pile or bin.
Irises need some extended cold weather to thrive. I tried grow them here in central Florida, and they did fine for the first 3 or 4 years, but died by the 5th year. I finally gave up. I hope this helps. Good luck with them.
Barbara Brewer Tobitt on June 02, 2019:
My irises look like they are dying brown leaves an very few blooms this year they were beautiful last year what should i do for them?
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on July 16, 2014:
@Richard1988: Thank you, Richard. I do enjoy digging in the dirt, and working with plants. Thanks, too, for the squidlike and for your comment.
Richard from Hampshire - England on July 15, 2014:
Those garden tool sets look great! You're clearlyba bit if a green thumb!
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on July 15, 2014:
@favored: I bet it was breathtaking. Wish I could have seen it. Thanks so much for the squidlike and for such a nice comment.
Fay Favored from USA on July 14, 2014:
I have used the same company with good results. I used to have a flower get with just Iris in it called "Iris Island." It had hundreds of plants and looked so lovely in full bloom. Thanks for the tips here, especially for composting.
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on July 10, 2014:
@GrammieOlivia: Aren't they just gorgeous? I have only a very few that I brought with me when we moved, because I didn't think they would grow here. Now I need to get more. Thank you for the squidlike and for your lovely comment. Thank you, too, for sharing it with weekend gardeners on FB. I need to check out that group. Do I need to request membership?
GrammieOlivia on July 06, 2014:
Love Irises, they just bloom so quickly and then they are gone.... :( But the beauty they give while in bloom is to die for. Lovely lens and sharing it right now with our weekend gardeners on FB!
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on July 01, 2014:
@paulahite: Thank you so much. Thanks for the squidlike, too.
Paula Hite from Virginia on July 01, 2014:
Lovely! and on Facebook today!
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on March 12, 2014:
@Zeross4: Thank you, Daisy for the thumbs up on this lens, and for your comment.
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on March 12, 2014:
@StrongMay: They really do multiply nicely. That's another reason I like them. I don't have so many now that I have relocated to central Florida. I was told they wouldn't do well here,so I left most of mine at our previous home. I have two, and one of them bloomed last year. I'm hoping for more flowers this year. Thanks for the thumbs up on this lens, and for your comment.
Renee Dixon from Kentucky on March 07, 2014:
I love irises, they are so beautiful. I will have to remember this information in case I'm ever able to raise my own :)
StrongMay on March 01, 2014:
We have purple irises. We pretty much ignore them, and they have bloomed beautifully like clockwork every year, without exception. We even transplanted them a couple times as we moved. They certainly multiply nicely! We give them lots of space.
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on February 07, 2014:
@takkhisa: I love them, too. Thank you so much for the squidlike and for your comment.
Takkhis on January 31, 2014:
I love Iris and it can be found where I live, especially in the public gardens.
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on August 16, 2013:
@anonymous: Thank you.
anonymous on July 30, 2013:
pretty. you have green thumb
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on July 27, 2013:
@Frednun1965: Thank you! I do love my irises...
Fred Alb from Uruguay on July 27, 2013:
Very nice work!
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on December 31, 2012:
@tracy-arizmendi: Thank you, Tracy1973. They're my favorite flower. Happy New Year to you!
Tracy Arizmendi from Northern Virginia on December 29, 2012:
Beautiful photos. I love irises.
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on August 25, 2012:
@LiteraryMind: I'm so glad you found it helpful. Enjoy those iris. I still need to "fan" mine. Thanks for the squidlike on this, one of my favorite lenses.
Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on August 24, 2012:
This came just in the nick of time. I have a clump of iris I need to move and until now, I had no clue what I was doing or how to do it.
MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on July 09, 2012:
@Sylvestermouse: You're welcome. Thank you for the squidlike and comment. They are appreciated. I hope your irises do well.
Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on July 08, 2012:
Iris are beautiful flowers! Thanks for the directions to properly separate/split tubers.
Mickie Gee on March 02, 2012:
Most excellent page about how to divide iris. Love the instructions and images. If you find that you are missing some tubers one day, don't ask me about them; I will deny everything--even knowing where you live!