Companion plants for tall bearded irises can be a little tricky. Wet feet can doom your bearded iris. If you interplant them with other plants, you need to choose plants with loose, airy foliage. Dense groundcovers or large-leafed plants can hold too much moisture around iris rhizomes, leading to rot and pest problems. You also want to choose plants that won't grow up around your irises and hide their blooms. Although the Lamium I planted around my intermediate bearded irises isn't doing them any harm, it grew much taller than I expected and has nearly swamped the iris blooms.
In my garden, columbines seem to be working out perfectly as iris companions. Their airy blooms might grow up tall, but the foliage stays low, so my view of the iris blooms isn't blocked. Once established, columbines don't require supplemental water in summer, so they do well in my unirrigated iris bed. Columbines bloom at the same time as many of my tall bearded irises, and they repeat the purple, pink, magenta, yellow, and white palate of my iris bed for some wonderful color echoes.
Columbine varieties come in an assortment of heights and bloom types, as well as in different colors. Fan columbines (Aquilegia flabellata) are dwarf plants, nice with shorter border or intermediate bearded irises. The huge blooms of ‘McKana's Giant' columbines are striking even from a distance. The ruffled double blooms of clematis-flowered columbines (A. vulgaris var. stellata, aka A. clematiflora) such as the ‘Barlowe' varieties add a fancy note, while the tall, long-spurred blooms of yellow columbines (A. chrysantha) and others have an undeniable elegance. For an old fashioned accent, try the shorter- or non-spurred "Granny's Bonnets" (A. vulgaris). For native plant lovers, there's the wild columbine (A. canadensis) and the shorter alpine columbine (A. alpina, aka A. montana). For more information on columbine species, see this article by Todd Boland.
Columbines are easy and cheap to start from seed, and the winter sowing method is ideal for them. The seeds germinate best after cold stratification. Winter sowing provides a period of cold treatment in moist media thanks to outdoor conditions, with no additional effort on your part. The natural fluctuation between warmer and colder temperatures eliminates any need to move your seed tray between cold, cool, and warm conditions as may be suggested for indoor germination methods.
The USDA National Agricultural Library glossary defines the winter sowing method as "a propagation method used throughout the winter where temperate climate seeds are sown into protective vented containers and placed outdoors to foster a naturally timed, high percentage germination of climate tolerant seedlings."
For an introduction to winter sowing, see my previous article, "Six More Weeks of Winter? Try Winter Sowing Your Seeds!" Dave's Garden also has an active Winter Sowing discussion forum, where subscribers can find great tips in the "sticky" thread at the top of the forum as well as in the ongoing posted discussions. What if you get columbine seeds later in the season or don't have enough cold weather in the forecast to stratify the seeds after sowing? No problem. Put the seeds in your refrigerator for a couple of weeks before sowing, and they should germinate just fine.
As with other perennials, I find columbines seem to do best for me if I pot them up for a season before planting them out in my garden. If I have just a couple seeds of a variety, I might sow them directly in a quart container with a vented lid, removing the lid when the weather warms. When sowing more seeds, I'll opt for a foil baking pan from the dollar store and sow rows for later transplanting. The deeper pans hold a good two inches of potting mix and come with a clear plastic dome that I can poke a few holes into. See "What to do with 10,000 Spring Sprouts in Your Winter Sowing Containers" for different approaches to planting out "hunks of seedlings" (HOS) versus potting them on.
Once the seedlings have sprouted and are growing well, with two or three pairs of leaves, I transplant them to larger pots for the summer. I like to add a pinch of polymer moisture crystals to their pots, just as I do to the mix I use for my winter sowing containers. My potted columbine seedlings are watered regularly during the summer for best growth. At the end of the summer or the following spring, they'll be planted out between my irises.
It'll take another year or two before they're blooming well, but I know they'll be lovely! Although I sow a few purchased hybrid columbine seeds, most of the columbines in my garden have been grown from seeds received in Dave's Garden trades. Visit the Seed Trading Forum to find opportunities for trading, or respond to SASBE offers of seeds for postage. Some of my seed containers are labeled with the color or variety name of their parent plant, while others simply say "Columbines from Mysticwill" or "Gardengirl's Columbine Mix." You may choose not to label your seedlings at all and enjoy the surprise when they bloom.
Columbine plants are generous garden residents. Like most plants that are easy to winter sow, they may give you a few self-sown volunteers each spring. After a few years, your columbine plant will probably have multiplied into a nice big clump. You can then dig and divide it into several plants for your garden or for sharing with friends.
If you've always wanted columbine blooms in your garden, or if you're looking for a great perennial to combine with your bearded iris, winter sow columbine seeds this year!
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus.
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