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Flag this! Dig and divide now for more flowers next spring

These are Debbie Arrington's heirloom blue flag irises.
(Photo: Debbie Arrington)
Did your bearded irises stop blooming? They likely need late summer rejuvenation

By dividing, these plants multiply.

Bearded irises rank among the best-flowering perennials for the Sacramento garden. They’re low maintenance, drought tolerant and reliable. They pretty much take care of themselves most of the year, dying back in fall before re-emerging for a massive spring flower show (and sometimes more in fall).

But every three to five years, bearded irises need to be dug up and started over. That’s the key to their durability and consistent bloom.

If a bearded iris in your yard has stopped blooming, it most likely needs to be divided. In the end, you get more plants – and more flowers.

Timing is everything with this chore; irises need to be divided and replanted in late August or September to get ready for winter dormancy. So now is the right time to dig up the iris bed.

Bearded irises grow from rhizomes, fat segmented tubers that grow just under the soil. Over time, the rhizomes lose their vitality. They rot or wither away. Side shoots grow from the central rhizome to form new baby rhizomes. It’s those baby rhizomes that will produce the future blooms.

Each rhizome produces thumblike protrusions with fans of leaves attached. Once a “thumb” produces a flower stalk, it won’t bloom again. So, any segments attached to flower stalks should be discarded, allowing room for the other “thumbs” to grow.

How do you know which to keep, which to cut? Dig up the rhizomes and look.

Shallow-rooted, they come up very easily, pried from the ground with a pitchfork or spade. (Be careful not to whack the rhizome you intend to keep.)

Once they're unearthed, wash off the rhizomes with water and start working them apart, using your fingers and a trowel or sharp knife. Keep the young, healthy rhizomes with one or two fans of leaves and healthy roots attached. Break off the aged, bloomed-out, rotted or dried-out pieces and discard. Also look for insect damage; cut that out, too.

Now, you’re ready to replant. First, rejuvenate the planting area with some well-aged compost and a little bone meal, worked into the top 6 inches of soil. On the irises, trim the leaves down to 4 to 6 inches.

Plant the rhizomes about 12 inches apart so the fan of leaves sits right on the soil surface, with the rhizome just under the soil. Unlike most perennials, don’t cover these with mulch. (That can promote rhizome rot.) Water deeply once, then let rest.

The irises will take over from there.

This method will keep a clump of bearded irises blooming and healthy for generations. I know. With unusually tall and fragrant flowers, this clump of old-fashioned blue flags originally came from my great-grandparents’ farm. Growing in the same spot for 70 years, it gets dug up and replanted every five years or so. And it’s still blooming strong.

A little extra effort two or three times a decade pays off.

Want to learn more about irises? Check out the Sacramento Iris Society:


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Garden Checklist for week of April 14

It's still not warm enough to transplant tomatoes directly in the ground, but we’re getting there.

* April is the last chance to plant citrus trees such as dwarf orange, lemon and kumquat. These trees also look good in landscaping and provide fresh fruit in winter.

* Smell orange blossoms? Feed citrus trees with a low dose of balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) during bloom to help set fruit. Keep an eye out for ants.

* Apply slow-release fertilizer to the lawn.

* Thoroughly clean debris from the bottom of outdoor ponds or fountains.

* Spring brings a flush of rapid growth, and that means your garden needs nutrients. Fertilize shrubs and trees with a slow-release fertilizer. Or mulch with a 1-inch layer of compost.

* Azaleas and camellias looking a little yellow? If leaves are turning yellow between the veins, give them a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim dead flowers but not leaves from spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. Those leaves gather energy to create next year's flowers. Also, give the bulbs a fertilizer boost after bloom.

* Pinch chrysanthemums back to 12 inches for fall flowers. Cut old stems to the ground.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* From seed, plant beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes and squash.

* Plant onion sets.

* In the flower garden, plant seeds for asters, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias.

* Transplant petunias, zinnias, geraniums and other summer bloomers.

* Plant perennials and dahlia tubers for summer bloom.

* Mid to late April is about the last chance to plant summer bulbs, such as gladiolus and tuberous begonias.

* Transplant lettuce seedlings. Choose varieties that mature quickly such as loose leaf.

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