How to Divide Bearded Iris

My Garden Life
June 2, 2020
Table of Contents
Iris’ unique flower forms, color combinations and bold, spiky foliage have been a mainstay of flower gardens for generations. Over time iris plants can outgrow their space or simply need to be reinvigorated. At that point it can become necessary to divide bearded iris.

Most perennial plants in general reach full maturity three to four years from the time they’re first planted. From that point on iris will continue to slowly expand in size; growing outward, losing vigor and eventually encroaching on other nearby plants.

Iris germanica, German bearded Iris
Dividing your iris is a great way to obtain more plants, but it’s also good for the overall health of the plant. Here are some of the additional benefits of dividing iris and other perennial plants:
  • Reduces crowding in the garden and allows plants to display their full form.
  • Creates space for air to move between plants which helps prevent disease and discourage some insect pests.
  • Plant divisions can be used in other areas of the landscape or shared with friends and family.
  • Lifting plants from the ground improves condition of the soil by loosening compacted areas.
  • Dividing perennials can help keep more aggressive plants contained. Fast growers can be divided every one or two years if needed.

When to Divide Bearded Iris Plants

German Iris plants can be divided any time spring through fall, however the best time is in the early spring before the plant leafs out or in late fall, before the ground freezes. Either of these times give the plant’s roots a chance to settle back in with the least amount of stress. If you must divide plants in the summer don’t divide until after flowering is complete and be sure to check the transplants daily for water until they are well-established.
Close up of Iris root rhizomes
Iris grow from a thick root called a rhizome. Rhizomes grow horizontally along the ground sending out smaller roots and occasional plant sprouts along the way. The rhizome typically grows in the top inch or so of soil while the smaller roots grow deeply into the ground. It’s not unusual to see rhizomes exposed at the soil surface and this quite normal. In fact, it’s important to avoid burying a rhizome too deeply and mulching should be done surrounding the plant, not right on top of the rhizome.

Pro tip: Cloudy days are especially good for dividing plants since the hot sun can cause wilting and stress both during the process and after the plant divisions are replanted.

How to Divide Bearded Iris Plants

Supplies:
Shovel
Gardening knife
Groundcover (tarp, newspaper, cardboard, etc.)
Garden gloves (optional)

Directions for Dividing Bearded Iris

1. Assume that the root ball extends as far as the tips of the foliage. Using your shovel, cut a circle an inch or two further past the foliage tips, around the outside of plant.

German bearded iris rootball

2. Work your way back around the plant again, pushing the shovel even deeper and towards the center of the plant, gently lifting the root ball up as you go.

German bearded iris uprooted and placed in a wheel barrow

3. To keep things tidy when you divide bearded iris have a wheelbarrow, tarp or newspaper ready to set the uprooted plant on.
Use a tarp when you divide bearded iris to keep things tidy. German bearded iris plant divisions laid out on a tarp
4. It’s easiest to cut the roots apart using a sharp knife. Cut the plant at the base between the rhizomes, making sure each rhizome has at least one fan of foliage.
Cutting apart German bearded iris rhizomes to propagate and grow more plants
5. The weight of the foliage can cause new plant starts to lean and loosen from the ground. When you divide bearded iris, cut the foliage down to about six to eight inches to provide some stability while the new roots get established.
Cutting back German bearded iris foliage to reduce stress on new plant cuttings
6. The plant divisions are now ready to plant in new location or pot up to share with your plant-loving friends. Plant the rhizome horizontally with the smaller roots buried in the ground and the large rhizome on the soil surface. Planting too deep will result in a healthy plant but with few or no flowers. Space at least 12-24 inches (30-60cm) apart so as not to overcrowd the new plants.
7. This is a good time to nourish the soil by mixing some compost into the planting holes, before placing the plants. After planting, water thoroughly and apply a light layer of mulch, avoiding the main rhizome, to help retain moisture and get the new plants off to a good start.

Using Bearded Iris in Your Garden

Your new plants should settle in quickly and start producing flowers the following year. Meanwhile the bold, sword-like foliage is great for creating interest and contrast when grown next to plants with either broad or very fine texture.

Over time thousands of Iris germanica (bearded iris) hybrids have been developed and introduced, resulting in a huge variety of plant sizes and flower color combinations. One of the most difficult aspects of growing bearded iris is simply deciding which of the amazing color combinations to grow!

Beautiful two-toned purple bearded iris in the garden

Flowering annuals are a great way to add continuous color as perennial plants go in and out of their bloom seasons. Take a look at these heat and drought tolerant annuals that would make perfect companions to your sun-loving iris plants.

2 Comments

  1. Charlene Schlotzhauer

    Very good advice. I have a large bed of iris that need to be divided. Poison Ivy has enriched a despite pulling it out at the root I’m afraid I need to remove all of the iris and replant to another area, the spray with round up all of the poison ivy. What is the best way to save and enjoy my beautiful iris?

    Reply
    • My Garden Life

      Hi Charlene,
      Iris roots are fairly shallow so they’re easy to remove and plant elsewhere, or just to remove temporarily while you clear out the poison ivy. Place your shovel edge about 3-4” away from the center of the plant. You’ll want to angle your shovel towards the roots and rhizomes and as you’re digging use a gentle upward movement to lift the plant from the soil. Work your way around the plant in this way until it releases from the ground. Replant the rhizome horizontally with the smaller roots buried in the ground and the large rhizome on the soil surface. Planting too deep will result in a healthy plant but with few or no flowers. Space at least 12-24 inches (30-60cm) apart so as not to overcrowd the new plants.

      Keep in mind that poison ivy spreads underground and by seed, so it would be a good idea to remove all the soil from the iris roots and make sure there aren’t any bits of other plant roots or seeds mixed in that could potentially be from the poison ivy. We found information from Clemson University Extension on options for controlling poison ivy that you might find helpful. Click HERE.

      Reply

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