Throw the Bums Out



A little over eight years ago, I dug up most of the plants around my rented Santa Cruz house and drove north with them to Eureka, where I live now. I was in a frenzy of grief and anger over the results of the 2000 election Supreme Court decision, and I found it soothing to spend that miserable January outside putting plants in the ground.

Among the plants I brought with me were a few bearded irises that came from an aunt’s garden. I planted catmint along the walkway leading to my front door and crammed the irises, along with a couple dozen daffodils, between the catmint.  In the spring, I got a nice little show of yellow daffodils, blue irises, and then a very helpful bloom of purple catmint to hide the foliage.  Sounds nice, huh?

The thing with irises is that you’re supposed to divide them every four years, and one way to remember that is to divide them during presidential election seasons. So four years later, during another emotionally difficult election, did I take out my anger and grief on the irises? Did I yank them out of the ground and tear them violently asunder, and did I find strength and renewal in the process of putting them back in the ground and restoring order to the world?

No, I did not. I ignored the irises. I felt distracted and hopeless and unable to take charge over anything, even my own perennials. So they stayed in the ground for another four years, and I justified my laziness on the grounds that I should stick to the presidential election cycle or I’d never remember when the four years was up.

As you can imagine, over those eight years the irises grew into knotty, woody, non-blooming horrors that were good for nothing but smothering daffodils and putting up spiky, half-dead foliage.

I hate them.  And now, with another election on the horizon, I am throwing the incumbents out. I can’t take four more years of this.

So I have tossed them out.  Sent them packing.  Set them out on the curb with their luggage.

And you know what?  I’ve had no takers.  Nobody wants them.  The approval ratings of bearded irises has, it appears, dropped to an all-time low.  They can’t even get stolen in this town.

It’s time for a change. Can we find something better than bearded iris to plant in our gardens?  Yes, we can.

I’m thinking heathers. They’re on sale at a specialty nursery next weekend.  They’re asking for my vote, and they just might get it.


  1. Yeah, I’m totally in the tank for heathers. And bearded iris? They just look so old, so last century, so poorly functioning, and so out of touch with their surroundings.

  2. I love your idea of combining garden work with presidential elections. And let’s hope something better is on the horizon.

    I haven’t had much luck in Wisconsin with heathers but I do have one wonderful old German iris that came with my house and has been growing in this garden for 50 years (house built in 1954). It stands up straight and smells like grape soda. I have a river of them lining the dry stream bed that is overflow design device for my pond. I’ve given lots away in the last few years so maybe Midwesterners are just more sentimental …

  3. Heathers are great where drainage is perfect! Would not grow them in my Play-doh soil here in New York.

    I did not George Bush had a beard!

    I agree with throw the bums out. I am pretty far to the right but think one or two terms is enough. Do your duty serve, then go back to your garden and give someone else a try.

    The (VOTE or Stop Complaining) TROLL

  4. Shoot, my sister just gave me a bunch of Iris. Should it mean something that I so gratefully accepted them?

    I just wanted something for late Spring/Early Summer for color after the Tulips have kicked it. Heathers wouldn’t work for me (no room, clay). Any ideas?

  5. Well, you didn’t just make me laugh, you answered the question, Why garden? As individuals, we are pathetically powerless to change the direction the country takes. But in the garden, we get to remake the world as we see fit.

    I’ve got a pile of disco-purple irises in my yard that I dug up this summer because I couldn’t stand the color another minute. I can’t give those away, either.

  6. I have been busy adding to my collection of iris germanica, and greatly enjoy their beauty and their colours in early summer. I even like their stiff fans of blades. So having taken out your angst about the election and the economy on the garden, do you have the energy and spirits to replant and with what?

  7. Sigh, my husband planted a pile of irises when he moved in and I have been too uninspired to hack at them. Maybe this should be my motivation (they are lovely though).

  8. What? You don’t like bearded irises? Are you crazy? They’re one of my favourite plants!! Although granted, they do need to be divided occasionally.
    Here in dry, dry Calgary, zone 3, heathers are not hardy. Bearded iris are, plus they can take the dryness here. ALthough their bloomtime is short, I think they look great repeated throughout the garden thanks to their spikey, fan-shaped foliage that looks great all season. The shape contrasts well with so many other plants that I’d probably plant them even if they didn’t bloom!
    Then there’s the amazing fragrance that some of them have… What’s not to like?
    To each their own, I guess…

  9. My sister says and I concur: Firesticks (euphorbia tirucalli ‘rosea’). Add some sedum nussbaumeriana, kalanchoe blossfeldiana (yellow or peachy orange ones), and erigeron karvinskianus. A little from Africa, a bit from here, a bit from the 5 and dime, and a lot of bright warm color.

  10. I’m just starting to like bearded iris, particularly now that there are some reblooming varieties. But I understand–sometimes plants just need to be voted out of office.

  11. I’d like to put in a good word for Pacific Coast Irises (PCIs). They’re shorter than tall bearded irises, they’re perfectly adapted to West Coast conditions, and they offer the most gorgeous flowers of any iris group. Although they’re evergreen, the clumps can get a little scruffy, so you have to be willing to groom them occasionally if they’re in a prominent spot. (Come to think of it, though, I have several clumps around an old plum tree that never get any attention whatsoever, and they look fine.) I’ve tried about 100 different cultivars (OK, I know I have a problem), and few other plants have given me such pleasure.

  12. Way back when I was a wee lad my next door neighbor gave me some iris tubers. I don’t remember the whole story or the colors but I do remember the fragrance and that everyone noticed them when they walked up to the front door. I must have been in first or second grade. Every time I sniff one today it takes me back.

    From gradeschool until high school we lived overseas in the suburbs of Tokyo. I remember my dad dragging us kids off on one of his weekend photo safaris. This occasion it was a springtime garden at a city park a few hours from where we lived. As you walked the gravel pathways along a wide flat stream (along with a gajillion other people) you could peek out through the bushes and see that potted iris were lined up in the water and that workers were carefully moving new bloomers into the mix and pulling out those with spent blooms. It looked like an endless display of blooming iris in every imaginable color, as long as I walked I saw iris. At the point where you might think you’d rather see something else instead of another iris the pathway rose up a steep hillside and at its top was a sitting area where you could look down onto the streambed and pathways below. From up there you could see that those workers were carefully placing certain colors in line with other blooms so that the entire display “painted” a woodblock print scene of a mountain stream with whirlpools and frothy currents. It was breathtaking. I learned a lot living in Asia and I always have a few iris somewhere in the yard, they take me back.

  13. If I walked by your curb I’d be back with my car and filling up the trunk! I LOVE iris and have been begging, borrowing and stealing them every change I get.

    Box em up and ship em to NJ I’ll plant them with love all over my suburban yard!

  14. Amy, I’m with you all the way on this one! – both with the ratty, overgrown bearded iris and the ratty, undergown man/boy who stole the election and drove America to bankrupcty.

    Hoping for a better 2009 –


  15. I like bearded iris – I think they make a nice accent plant. They are just not meant to be planted en masse. Plus, they are very tough in hard environments. It does very well in Chicagoland but we can’t grow heather here – the soil & pH are not right for it to do well.

    I agree with Janice, they add a nice structural element to the garden throughout the season after flowering and make a nice foil for finer textured plants. And if used judiciously and not overdone, they take only a few minutes to clean up each month to look their best.

  16. I can’t stand bearded Iris. Most of them look ridiculous. But then, I’m a cranky person.

    I concur with Tom in Portland about the Pacific Coast hybrids. Beautiful, tasteful flowers in dazzling colors.

  17. Beared iris are old school, yo. And frankly, too finicky for my soil. I’ve thought about putting plants on the front sidewalk that say “free,” but something stops me. Could be that my neighbors think I’m already nuts for not mowing my lawn 2-3 times per week.

  18. Heh… Benjamin just wrote that bearded irises are “old school, yo!” 🙂

    Oh, irises. I had to dig up my red Samurai because it got that stupid iris borer crap… you have no idea how sad I was, because I loved that red color in my garden. So all I have left is Japanese iris, and I’m thinking about getting rid of that, too… it looks really cool when it blooms, and then for about a week when its leaf blades turn yellow, but otherwise it is B-O-R-I-N-G!

    I think I just talked myself out of keeping it, in fact. If it weren’t 1:12 am (okay, really, if it wasn’t 45 degrees outside) I would go dig them up right now…

  19. My great-aunts were bigtime Iris Society members in rural Washington State. After they died and their place was sold, I remember digging up dormant irises by the hundreds (at age 12), looking through catalogs to match names with colors, sorting them into labeled paper bags, and filling our car trunk with them. I think I was crying as I did it, as it symbolized the end of an era for our family. Most got planted in my folks’ woodland garden, where it was too shady, and I think they’re now pretty much gone. I agree that they are old-school (yo) and a lot of trouble, but they bring back memories of some wonderful ladies who cared for them and for me too.

  20. Regarding the snarky comment about the 2000 election, see the following lead from the Nov. 12, 2001 New York Times.

    EXAMINING THE VOTE: THE OVERVIEW; Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote
    Published: November 12, 2001
    A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward.

  21. I took the pledge – Have you?

    BTW I love the Bearded iris. I do not like the current planting of politicians.

    Well the congress has done it.

    As of the morning of the bail out vote in the House of Representatives, polls showed that the American people were 74% against any bail out for the Wall Street fat cats. We wanted a fix from the bottom up and not from the top down. Fix ‘Main Street’ not Wall Street we told them. They didn’t do it.

    However they did agree with the bloated $700 billion the Senate passed for their greedy Wall Street friends with another $150 Billion of Pork. So now our children are on the hook for at least $850 billion and no one can tell us if it will work or will be the last.

    Meanwhile, ‘We The People’ continue to lose our jobs and homes.

    Our elected representatives have chosen to ignore us, ‘We The People’ whom they swore to represent.

    They think we are stupid. They think we don’t have the guts to clean house. They think ‘they know better’ than we on ‘Main Street’ do.


    I have taken the Pledge:

    I, (put your name here), will NOT vote for any incumbent in the upcoming election regardless of party. I intend to do my part in ‘throwing the bums out’ in Washington that continue spending my money on those that have wrecked our economy rather than the people who sent them there. This is my solemn pledge.

    Mail this to your Representative and Senators, to all your friends and all news media, both local and national. Email this to all the talking heads on the cable outlets, Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, Alan Colmes, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and every talk show host you are familiar.

    Urge everyone you meet to take the Pledge.

    This the only way we, the American People, will ever take back our own government.

    Do we have the guts? Do you???

    If not, then you don’t have any right to complain if they continue to screw us over.

  22. oh boy, amy…only you can start with a piece about aging bearded irises and end up with a political debate. But don’t worry, I’m on your team, and I’m voting for you! debra

  23. I, too, love bearded ireses. Not so much some of the crazier color combinations, though. I’d rather have white and lavender and you can keep any lime green ones….

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