Garden Variety: Iris collector donates plants to nonprofit for fundraiser

Longtime Douglas County resident and Master Gardener Carole Mitchell recently donated her iris collection to the Lawrence-based nonprofit Sunrise Project, to be sold as a fundraiser for the organization. More than 200 varieties of irises will be available at the sale from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 30, at the Sunrise Project site at 1501 Learnard Ave., in Lawrence.

Mitchell made the decision to donate the irises this spring when she put her rural Douglas County home on the market and prepared to move into Lawrence. She hopes the plants, which brought her joy for decades, will go to good homes while also benefitting a local organization.

Mitchell says irises are perfect for Kansas because they like the extreme heat of Kansas summers and tolerate extremely cold winters. Irises grow best in full sun with good drainage, but Mitchell says they will survive and bloom with a half day of sun. She recommends planting irises on a slope or in a raised bed for improved soil drainage, or gardeners can add organic matter to the soil prior to planting to improve drainage.

July and August are the preferred months to transplant irises. This mid- to late-summer transplant gives plants time to establish new root systems before winter while avoiding the spring bloom season.

The Sunrise Project is a fledgling nonprofit in East Lawrence with roots in gardening and nutrition programs for preschool and elementary school children. The organization’s educators continue to work with youth through child care providers and area schools but have expanded into teen-geared programs and food and garden-related workshops for all ages.

The Sunrise Project site at 1501 Learnard Ave. hosts a coffee shop whose proceeds support the nonprofit, rentable kitchen and classroom space, a community garden, and a worm farm. The Lawrence Fruit Tree Project down the street also works under the Sunrise Project umbrella.

All irises purchased at the sale will come with instructions on planting and care that were prepared by Mitchell as part of her work with the Douglas County Extension Master Gardeners, an organization she had been a member of since 2000. Mitchell also donated some varieties of her irises to that group.

Mitchell’s iris collection included many Dykes Medal winners and a range of tall bearded irises, miniatures and beardless varieties. The Dykes Memorial Medal is the top honor given to one iris variety each year by the American Iris Society. The award was established in 1927 and is named for William Dykes, a British horticulturist who was an authority on irises around that time.

Mitchell believes she had more than 300 varieties of irises in her garden at one time and kept meticulous records of their locations and vigor. Her favorite, Stairway to Heaven, was transplanted to a safe location, and many others with special meaning were given to friends and family.

Mitchell is unsure about when she started growing irises in her garden. “My grandmother grew flowers, including irises, in her garden in Texas. I didn’t really notice them until my sister dug some irises and shared them with me. They were Dykes Medal winners, and I decided I would start collecting those.”

She joined the American Iris Society in 1973 and often traveled to the organization’s conventions with her late husband, Emmett. Over the years, her favorite plants moved with them a few times but made their home the longest in the Lawrence area.

For Mitchell, the plants are more than beautiful spring flowers; they are memories of friends and family, of trips they shared and times spent together in the garden. By sharing them, they can become those special moments for others.

Expert tips from Mitchell:

• Buy irises as close to home as you can. They will be better adapted to the weather conditions.

• If you have too many, divide them and share with a friend, or plant them in a ditch. They will grow and survive on their own for years to come.

• Good garden cleanup in the fall is the key to discouraging rot and iris borers.

• Avoid watering irises except at establishment and over extremely dry periods. Too much water leads to rot.

• Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.


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