Consider the Foliage

Japanese roof irises, Iris tectorum, blooming in Kit’s garden. Photo: Lise Jenkins


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

Recently, friends who have come over to see the garden have commented on my Japanese roof irises, Iris tectorum, that are in full bloom. While I’m not an iris aficionado, I am quite fond of these irises, having planted them throughout the garden.

Now, there are a lot of irises out there. What I particularly like about this iris is its foliage: it maintains a fountain shape, thereby contributing to the elegance of the perennial border even when it’s not in bloom.

Japanese roof irises, Iris tectorum, blooming in Kit’s garden. Photo: Lise Jenkins

Friends inevitably ask me why I don’t grow any bearded irises. Here is my dreaded answer: I cannot abide its leaves. The beauty of the flower is simply not worth having to tolerate the foliage for 11 months of the year. I stress that this is my opinion and to all you bearded iris fans out there — and there are a lot of you — I do not mean to be offensive.

All this brings me to my point: when planting perennials, consider the foliage. Perennials, unlike annuals, typically have a shorter bloom period, leaving the gardener to ponder the foliage. The simple fact is that you will have to live with the foliage far longer than you will be able to savor the flowers.

While I like daffodils in bloom, I pulled them out because the flopping foliage never seems to disappear — the wait seems endless. I have no wish to braid the foliage, just like I don’t want to cut the foliage of the bearded iris into a fan shape. The sad fact is that after the daffodils have stopped blooming, I don’t want their foliage at all.

Ah, the experts tell us to disguise the foliage, grow a plant that will hide the decaying foliage. These are wise words, except I have never found an adequate plant that overwhelms daffodil foliage when it’s on its long death journey.

Many years ago, I planted some Leucojum, aka Snowflakes, that now form three large clumps of bushy foliage. The foliage is not unattractive but it takes up room and flops as it ages. I quickly tire of it and have now reached a solution that seems to agree with both the Leucojum and me: I cut the foliage in half.

Now the rule with bulbs for the gardener is that you must let the foliage remain until it disappears, as this allows the bulbs to build up strength for the next year. The horrible truth is that by the time I cut back the foliage, I don’t much care if they return or not. Perhaps the Leucojum cower in fear at my disregard and lack of feeling, or perhaps they simply have decided to brazen out my lack of respect, because they return without fail every year.

All too often when we are planning the garden, we consider the flowers and colors we are planting without regard to the foliage. Both perennials and bulbs have a shorter bloom time than annuals so it behooves the gardener to look at the foliage because that is what you will see in the long run.

With annuals, the flowering throughout the growing season is constant so the foliage isn’t nearly as important. Once annuals have succumbed to the first frost, they land up on the compost pile.

Many bulbs do have lovely foliage. I grow a lot of Asiatic and Orienpet lilies; their foliage is quite eye appealing after they have finished blooming. I might cut the long stalks down to a more manageable size but I can easily tolerate their foliage before they turn brown.

When you are looking in the catalogues, don’t concentrate on just the flowers. Keep in mind that you’ll live with the foliage a lot longer than the blooms. If you are willing to cut foliage into a fan shape or to braid spent foliage, please go ahead. After all, it is your garden.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email:

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