The Art of the Garden: how to grow Irises

    28 May 2019

    It is an intoxicating idea.  The summer of 1939, the atmosphere shot through with the rumblings of impending war, and the chance opportunity to buy six acres of Sussex woodland as an escape from the confines of London living.  The painter Ivon Hitchens ( 1893-1979) spent £20 on a patch of countryside dense with birch trees, towering oaks and dark tunnels of rhododendron and towed a gypsy caravan into its centre.  As the Blitz started pounding the city the following year Hitchens settled in the woods full time with his young family, gradually extending the domain to include a series of ponds, a flat-roofed studio and a house.

    I love the idea of Hitchens stepping outside each morning and emptying the contents of a hot-water bottle over his head before setting off with sandwiches and a wheelbarrow of canvases to paint.

    Hitchens is revered as the painters’ painter for his celebratory use of colour and the sheer pleasure marks made by a brush on canvas can offer. In 1952 the distinguished artist and critic, Patrick Heron wrote  ‘of all English painters living,’ Hitchens has ‘the strongest pulse, the most articulate rhythm’.

    The Garden Museum’s Ivon Hitchens The Painter in the Woods is a jewel of an exhibition which charts Hitchens’ disciplined but exuberant response to nature within the haven he established. In his 1952 painting, Irises, Greenleaves,  the distinctive downward-turned yellow petals are of the damp-loving flag iris, Iris pseudacorus. 

    Although you cannot see their stems, the flowerheads are held strongly upright and their handsome sword-like leaves fold gently forwards, guiding your eye across the painting to the echoing yellow of the studio doorframe.  I like the way the shimmering darkness of the watery outside contrasts with the welcoming comfort of life indoors – the inverse of the 1942 ‘Studio with open Doors’  with its tantalising suggestion of the woodland beyond.

    How to grow

    Iris pseudacorus can become invasive – indeed if you do have a pond to plant, I would go for the better behaved creamy yellow Iris pseudacorus var. bastardiae – but the rich yellow of our native iris can be elegant too if judiciously handled. In the rectangular formal pond at the inspiring Bryan’s Ground in Herefordshire  it stands as an architectural sheaf of bright green against a fine backdrop of stilted hornbeam.

    Bryan’s Ground is also home an exhilarating planting of 25 different apple trees which rise above a show-stopping sea of the delicate blue Iris sibirica ‘Papillon’.  Again it is the upright, architectural quality of the iris that provides the intoxicating rhythm.  Iris sibirica will tolerate a wide range of soils but needs an element of pampering in its first years.

    For sunnier spots, the voluptuous bearded irises offer an endless palette to choose from.  One of the finest selections is Iris pallida subsp. pallida with scented flowers of pale lavender and broad-bladed grey leaves which provide a handsome accent in the garden well into the autumn.  I have used it to flank a series of brick steps in a village garden in Suffolk and Kim Wilkie planted stretches of it in the V&A’s John Madejski garden for its long-lasting structure.