Iris Plants in a Waterlogged Garden

One of the simplest alternatives for high water gardener is to stick with high water plants. The best and most colorful of these are irises.
By: Maureen Gilmer

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(SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / DIY Do It Yourself Network)

(SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / DIY Do It Yourself Network)

The song of the high water gardener is a dirge of black stinking roots, melted bulbs and disintegrating stems.

While a dozen great books present the techniques of dry desert-like gardening, few teach high water survival tactics.

Wet ground and saturated soils can be caused by compaction or problematic grading. It may be an unusually high water table that sits just below the surface. Sites with seasonal summer flooding render soils inhospitable to actively growing plants.

Plants need air in the root zone. Displace the air with water for more than a few hours and most plants become unhappy campers. After a few days healthy roots melt into a black foul smelling mess like that of an over watered house plant.

Sometimes you can fix the drainage problem using raised beds or extensive French drains and ditches. These solutions can reduce your garden area or cost big bucks to implement.


(SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / DIY Do It Yourself Network)

(SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / DIY Do It Yourself Network)

One of the simplest alternatives for high water gardener is to stick with high water plants. The best and most colorful of these are irises.

The mythological Iris was goddess of the rainbow, so it's no surprise to find her name on these perennials with an incredible range of flower color. Some species of iris are valuable high water problem solvers. These are actually semiaquatic, and although they can live in dry soil, they thrive in saturated, poorly drained conditions. Most will grow far larger in wet ground than in drier soil.


(SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / DIY Do It Yourself Network)

(SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / DIY Do It Yourself Network)

Water loving "amphibious" irises are derived from wild species in Asia, Europe and North America. These are found in low lying wet ground, on river banks and lake shores where their thick roots spread out through the mud. They may be inundated or dry depending on the season.

Breeders have used these species to develop three classes of fabulous cultivars: Japanese, Louisiana and Siberian hybrids. All are magnificent, growing to three or four feet tall in bloom.

For over 500 years butterfly iris have been cultivated in Japan. Large broad petals make the reed-like plants appear as if a flock of butterflies have alighted on their tips. These are collectively listed and sold as Japanese Hybrids.

The results of early Japanese breeding and immense strides later in the West have yielded some of the largest most intensely colored flowers in the iris family. Some hybrids feature fancy bands and two tone flowers with high contrast veins in cobalt blue, lavender and purple hues. This iris plentiful moisture early in the season but well adapted to drier conditions later on.

Five species of iris native to the Mississippi Valley, Atlantic and Gulf coasts were used in the breeding of the Louisiana hybrids. This all-American group loves warm wet conditions of the south from Florida to Texas, but are easy to cultivate in colder climates too. Renowned for their color range and bloom variations, you can expect mature plants to produce from five to seven flowers, and occasionally as many as ten. Among them is newly popular "Black Gamecock," which is the deepest purple-black bloom ever produced.

The Siberian Hybrids are derived from Iris siberica, which is well adapted to both wet and dry soils. It grows well in ordinary garden soil, but in high water gardening conditions during the growing season plants will double in size. A mature plant produces dozens of branched flower spikes topped with four to six blooms. Colors include most shades of blue, purple, yellow and white. The variety "Dirigo Black Velvet" is another purple black beauty.

To learn more about these and many other amphibious iris online, log on to the All Things Iris web site at They offer a well illustrated section on Japanese and Siberian iris as well as detailed growing tips and hardiness maps. So if you're a high water gardener, forget the dirge and dive into iris for a rainbow of water resistant summer color.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of "Weekend Gardening" on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. For more information, visit : or Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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