How to grow bearded irises

Val Bourne

Find out how to grow bearded irises, the much-loved flower often painted by Claude Monet, including variety recommendations and how to divide.

Claude Monet loved to paint irises and you can understand why. The stiff stem and sword-shaped leaves are topped by ruffled flowers in every colour. Their very name, Iris, signifies the Goddess of the Rainbow. She was able to unite and heaven and earth and the Ancient Greeks celebrated her by planting irises on the tombs of their loved ones.

Iris breeders have provided us with hundreds of varieties of bearded irises and they all have three upright standards and three falls. The falls are marked with orange beards and this flash of colour often brings the flower to life.

Where to plant

Irises’ most important requirements are full sun and good drainage. They will survive on a range of soils, except heavy clay. Those with clay soil can add coarse grit and make a raised bed to improve drainage.

How to plant

When planting a new iris, soak the rhizomes in water for an hour.

Prepare the ground well by digging in good garden compost.

Put the rhizome in the ground so that it faces the sun, with the foliage behind, spreading the roots outwards.

Space them between 9-12in apart (22-30 cm) and almost cover the rhizome with soil, leaving the upper part exposed. It will push up as it establishes.

Firm in and water well.

When it flowers

Irises flower at different times between April and June according to their variety.

When to cut back

Remove any browned leaves during the growing season to discourage leaf spot.

Cut off the flowering stems at the base once the flowers have faded.

When to divide

Divided your clumps every third, fourth or fifth year to keep them vigorous, otherwise they may stop flowering. The best time is straight after flowering, but this can be down up until early September.

How to divide

Look for the new rhizomes - they are paler and firmer to the touch. Discard any old, dark pieces of root that feel soft.

Shorten the roots to make them easier to plant.

Trim the foliage to create a fan - leaving the leaves about six inches long (15 cm).

Replant in fresh ground or add some fertiliser or organic material.


Feed in the spring with a top dressing of a general fertiliser such as Growmore. A second top dressing of bone meal can be applied after flowering if you wish. Once established, irises should not be watered or over fed. Over feeding encourages rotting.

Pests and diseases

Normally irises are trouble-free plants, however leafspot may be a problem after a spell of wet weather. You will see small brown spots on the leaves. They rarely do much damage but they are unsightly. Affected leaves should be cut back and burnt.

If the leaves turn yellow it may be root rot. Clean up the rot with a knife. Professional growers use a 10% bleach solution.

Grow with…

The shorter early-flowering irises can be used on sunny edges of borders. But taller bearded iris need to get the sun to their toes - so a border edge or a dedicated iris border is best. But they need a dedicated space to allow the sun to get to the rhizomes - this produces more flowers.

Iris varieties

Irises are divided according to height from the shortest miniatures to the tall bearded. The divisions are abbreviated and often listed by the name and they flower in sequence. The shortest first, the next tallest next etc.

Miniature Bearded Irises - MDB (8 n, 10 cm) April
Standard Dwarf Bearded - SDB (8-15 in, 20-38cm) late April
Intermediate Bearded - IB (/ 16-27in, 41-70cm) May
Miniature Tall Bearded - MTB (/16-27 in, 41-70 cm) May
Border Bearded - BB (16-27 in, 41-70 cm) May
Tall Bearded - TB (up to / 39 in-1m) June

Good iris varieties

There are hundreds of varieties on offer and some have been chemically changed to become Tetraploid. These tend to have very large flowers and they almost look top heavy. You love them or you hate them!

Here are some of my favourites.

Tall bearded irises

A two-tone blue iris with velvety navy-blue falls and pale-blue standards.

'Jane Phillips'
A pale-blue self (all one colour).

'Edith Wolford'
A softly ruffled pale-yellow and pastel violet-blue.

'Dusky Challenger'
A ruffled dark iris - one of the best.

'Jesse’s Song'
An informal white and violet ruffled iris.

Bright yellow standards supported by maroon-brown falls marbled in white veins close to the beard. Sophisticated.

Shorter bearded irises

'Melon Honey'
A very floriferous short iris with soft apricot flowers.

'Sapphire Gem'
A sky-blue iris with greener leaves than most.

'Cherry Tart'
A maroon-brown and claret iris with ragged beards.

'Little Black Foot'
A dark-purple iris with soft-blue beards.

Iris ‘Torero’ (2005)

This French-bred iris from Cayeux in France was voted the best iris in a public competition in France. The apricot standards are underpinned by strawberry-red falls decorated with bright-orange beards. It reaches a manageable 90 cm (3 ft) and it will need an open sunny situation and well-drained soil to display its dazzling livery to full effect. It’s one of 600 Cayeux varieties in a rainbow of colours.

Did you know...?

Their very name, Iris, signifies the Goddess of the Rainbow. She was able to unite and heaven and earth and the Ancient Greeks celebrated her by planting irises on the tombs of their loved ones.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.