'Dig Your Own Iris'
By Dana Borglum

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I started pollen dobbing in the mid-'80's after a kindly, helpful iris hybridizer showed me where the pollen goes. I had tried putting pollen on the beard and any place I could figure. But until he showed me the stigmatic lip, I was at a loss about the process.

Then the seedlings started sprouting like mad, up to 8000 per year, and soon there was more work caring for three years seedlings than I had anticipated. Next step was to see if anyone would be interested in the best cast-off’s. I needed to buy new varieties and many seedlings were nice, but not enough improvements on their parents to warrant naming. A few ads in the Pennysaver (a NY weekly paper where New Yorkers can advertise items for sale at a price) brought some folks. They bought after oo-ing and aah-ing, never having seen iris in so many colors. I thought, aha, a way to support my new habit, iris!

A few years later, about 10, too many folks were coming at once! Four of us couldn’t dig fast enough in bloom season – we dig them in bloom and put the plants into plastic grocery bags and off they went. After having some people leave because we couldn’t get to them, we decided to try ‘dig your own’.

We handed out spades and bags and watched them dig. It worked very well; most gardeners like to do their own thing. Only problem, too much soil went with the iris, so we had to bring in top soil each year – along with the thistle seed and other unwanted seed. Nothing will be perfect until we get to heaven where there are no weeds to deal with. But then, no iris sales either I guess.

Next stop was to buy Nutra-brew (a compost of brewers grain and sawdust with a ph of 7 – no seeds) to fill in with. Iris love the compost, also peonies, and it has worked very well, even though it’s a bit of work to move 56 cubic yards each year to the iris rows. But, everything about gardening 2-4 acres is work! You just have to love doing it. We get over 1000 folks here in bloom season of approximately May 15 to June 25.

 Following bloom season we take down the road signs and spend the rest of the summer and fall transplanting and add the winter dreaming of a better way for next year. Luckily we’re out of the way on a dirt/gravel road so that when signs come down, we’re about shut down except for former customers who either/or didn’t make it during bloom season or still want something.

Next year will be our first year of selling ‘dig your own’ named iris. We’ll see how that works. I’m sure it will add some problems, but reduce some at the same time. But, I’m sure it will be a permanent thing because I’ve still been digging the named varieties and that part has been growing. Since I have little relief help in this area, I really wear out some days.

However, with a little instruction to know where to find and how to ‘dig your own’ plants, one person hand handle 90 percent plus of the customers by handing out spades or shovels, bags and a wheel barrow (to help the customers carry along their choices with them) and collecting the proceeds. That in itself contributes to reducing the amount of helpers needed. Maybe I can even have some time to hybridize and record crosses. Keith Keppel gets on my case when I keep naming plants with ‘unknown’ for parentage. I just haven’t had the time to do all the recording in bloom with 100-200 people here during a busy day!

It seems improbably, but over half of the people each year are ‘first time here’ customers. The work keeps spreading and many come from over 50 miles away. Of course, many are just ‘lookers’. But, they tell someone else and we enjoy having all the folks appreciate all the effort we go to have if bloomingly. And they tell us so. The 2002 bloom season found customers from 15 states other than New York, plus people from Canada visiting our gardens. My wife kept tract.

So, a hobby got out of hand and turned into a living IRA. All this gives me a reason and a method to keep fit in my retirement. Plus, we have the enjoyment of seeing new iris varieties develop, enjoy meeting new people who become returning customers year after year, and really enjoy living in our own small piece of heaven here on earth.