By the 1920s, anyone who could was buying an automobile. Hamilton Carr Bland grew up in Mayesville, where gazing over those expansive flat fields broadened his horizons. He moved to Sumter to start a dealership. But his rural upbringing was never far afield, and he gardened tirelessly at his new house in town and developed a prime fishing hole on his thirty acres of bottom land above the Green Swamp.
Always looking for the new and unusual, Bland ordered Japanese irises and planted them in his flower beds. After the images created by the florid catalogue descriptions, imagine his disappointment with the puny individuals that emerged next spring. Not one to waste, he pulled up the failed experiments and threw their remains in his swampy pond.
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One hot afternoon in May, he left work for his in-town refuge. Among the cypress trees and great blue herons he spotted swaying blossoms of grace and beauty. The Japanese irises had found their briar patch.
At the same time, the local Coca-Cola magnate, A.T. Heath, owner of the adjoining Swan Lake, realized dividing that land among his children would be divisive. He instead offered his cypress pond to the city of Sumter, along with his purchase of Bland’s adjoining acreage. His stipulation was that Sumter create a public garden with the Bland as its director. And so the horticultural treasure that is Swan Lake Iris Gardens, with thousands of Iris ensata blooming each May was created, in what is now in the heart of Sumter.
Even if you don’t have a fishing hole, cypress trees, swans or anhingas, you can grow these beautiful irises. Paul Smith, a Sumter County Master Gardener, has sandy soil yet raises hundreds of these colorful, long-lived perennials.
Japanese irises need six hours of sun a day, lots of water, and a slightly acidic soil, high in organic matter. Paul recommends making a depression in a bed and mixing in lots of peat or compost (except mushroom, which is more alkaline). Set the iris rhizomes 2-3 inches below the soil line, 12 to 24 inches apart, and then mulch with several inches of pine straw. If you have vole troubles, put out some mouse traps baited with peanut butter. During the growing season, give these plants at least two inches of water per week. (Find out the pH of your city water — you may want to use rain water instead. Visit Clemson’t Carolina Clear for instructions on how to install a rain barrel.)
Established irises should get a light application of slow-release fertilizer in April and June but don’t overfertilize. Too much nitrogen promotes overly-vegetative growth and encourages thrips and other insects to browse.
Japanese irises and German, or bearded, irises have few cultural requirements in common. Both, however, hate to be crowded. Depending on how close your initial plantings are, you’ll need to divide the rhizomes every three to five years. Sumter Master Gardeners usually do this in June, digging and separating the plants to three or four fans; cutting back the foliage so they won’t fall over when reset. If you’d like to grow these imported but well-behaved beauties, you can find them at the Sumter County Master Gardener site at the Swan Lake Iris Festival, May 27-28. Come and see all eight species of swans and the new butterfly garden, too, in this remarkable in-town cypress swamp.
Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and is a co-host of “Making It Grow” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website: www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/