Meet: Sharon Drinkwater, Iris grower, Rainbow Ridge

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27 Jan 2016

Today our convenor Linda Ross chats to Sharon Drinkwater about her love affair with iris.

Irises are in the family of Sharon Drinkwater. Her father, Graeme Grosvenor, started Rainbow Ridge Nursery in Dural on the outskirts of Sydney in 1970. The nursery is Australia’s largest specialist iris and daylily nursery and has won multiple awards for its world-class hybrids. The nursery recently relocated to a picturesque paddock outside Orange and right now it’s overflowing with a rainbow of iris blooms.

Interview via The Garden Clinic Magazine

You grew up in a nursery surrounded by colourful iris. What made you decide to get involved in the business?

I first started working at the nursery back in early 2000. It was the perfect place to work with flowers and raise my two girls at the same time. When my father wanted to retire he was happy to pass the business over to my husband Scott and me.

Have you bred any of your own varieties of iris?

I have not yet officially named any iris (call me an apprentice iris breeder!) but I help with the hybridising, collection of seed and raising the seedlings. I then select the iris to be named, select their names and decide when they are to be released to the public.

You’re a fan of the super-sized, spring-flowering, tall bearded iris because of their frills, ruffles and colours. But these are one-hit wonders. Surely there are some repeat-flowering iris that can compete for your affections?

Repeat blooming iris interest a lot of people but they’re not for me. If you get repeat bloom, it will usually not be as strong as the spring flower, and it’s something you can’t really guarantee as the climate is dramatically different from area to area. I prefer to concentrate on an excellent flower display in the spring and not worry about what happens in autumn. Having said that, there are some very good re-blooming tall bearded iris. The best is probably the American award-winner ‘Victoria Falls’. My father’s award-winner ‘June Brazier’ is also an excellent re-bloomer when conditions are right. As well as looking at re-blooming iris, you can extend the season of iris bloom to cover most of the year simply by making a good selection of types and cultivars.

We often get queries that iris don't like growing near camellias and azaleas. Is pH an issue?

Bearded iris need neutral to alkaline soil, pH7 or slightly above so they are not so happy near acid-loving azaleas and camellias. But there are some beardless iris, such as the Pacific Coast native iris (also called Californian iris), Louisiana iris and Siberian iris that do like acid soil and would do well in association with camellias and azaleas. The Californian iris also do well in semi-shaded positions. The issue for gardeners really is selecting the right type of iris for the conditions they have.

Can you share any practical growing advice for newcomers to the wonderful world of the tall bearded iris?

My best tips are plenty of sun and good drainage, so a raised bed helps. These are low-maintenance plants that don’t require a lot of fuss, just a small amount of fertiliser before and after spring bloom.

Rainbow Ridge will be selling all sorts of iris at the Fair. Come and meet Sharon, she's happy to help.