18 Acres of Iris

September 14, 2015

In 1929 John Ravel, foreman of the ‘digging gang’ at Bertrand Farr’s Iris farm wrote this first hand account of his work at the farm. His recollections were included as an appendage to the AIS checklist, 1929. The following account is taken from this article and takes us back to what it must have been like on Mr. Farr’s top class operation.

[Illustrations are from Cooley’s Garden’s catalogs for 1948 & 1949]

18 Acres of Iris
A Commercial Iris Farm – circa 1920

John started with Mr. Farr on May 6, 1913 as a general nursery worker and worked his way up to supervisor of all iris activities. He begins by saying he knows nothing about the varieties of Mr. Farr’s iris but he knows about the commercial handling of iris on a quantity scale. He claims to have “pollenized, observed, noted, trued, discarded, transplanted and handled millions of iris” in his 16 years employ.

Hybridizing was usually done by Mr. Farr himself, with John and another employee assisting, functioning as a 3 person team. Mr. Farr believed in quantity and haphazard crosses. Sometimes, a whole row of an iris, say WHITE KNIGHT, was crossed with up to 100 different varieties. Seeds were collected, dried, and planted one pod to a flat, then intentionally left outdoors, until the frost cracked the shells of the seeds. At that time, they were brought inside, and exposed to artificial heat all winter. Seeds would sprout in early spring, and were brought outside to be lined out later. While the following spring there would be a “sprinkling of bloom”, the real observing and selection season does not occur util the third spring. By the end of the blooming season those that met with Mr. Farr’s interest were moved to the “selected seedlings” bed. Out of this bed, not more than one out of one hundred were eventually introduced. In all, not more than one out of five thousand of the original seedlings ever got to be introduced. Many times a new variety was propagated to the extent of several thousand plants and then discarded … because something better came along.

He describes the limestone soil or Eastern Pennsylvania, where the operation was located, as being of good drainage, where there was never more than an incidental case of rot or borer, except in plantings that were abandoned in the third or fourth year. He never had to treat for either of these two conditions. If a shipment of iris arrived in “bad shape”, rhizomes were dipped into permanganated potash” before planting.

The life of an iris bed is 3-4 years. After this time the bed is abandoned or dug up, not to be replanted again for 3-4 more years, although John says he never remembers a bed being replanted in all the years he was working there. When preparing for planting, John decides on the list of varieties to be discarded, then prepares a list of the varieties to be in demand 2 to 3 years after the planting. He goes on to say this is not “child’s play” and a task of great responsibility. New fields for planting are treated with well-rotted manure some years previously, followed by cover crops. Applications of hydrated lime are made before the new planting can begin. Straight furrows are prepared with a double horse cultivator, but can only be furrowed on the day of planting. One man lays out the rhizomes, then “diggers” put the rhizomes in the soil, followed by “firmers”, who firm the ground with their heavy shoes. Planting is done in October, and in the event of “heaving”, the iris are replanted in the early spring with negligible losses.

In May, the first problem to be dealt with is “trueing”. When planting, there is always the possibililty of plants getting mixed in that do not belong, and if a bloom is not “true” it is pulled immediately and thrown away. The process is repeated the second year. In the third year the crop is harvested, the rhizomes sold, the leftovers replanted and the iris bed abandoned for at least 3-4 years.

Thousands of orders arrive early in the Spring and they are not all filled at one time. When digging iris for shipment, the Southern, early and rush orders are handled first. Orders are divided into “digging lists”, with about 100 orders per list, and given to an iris foreman. All iris on the digging list of the same name are dug at once, in alphabetical sequence. Rhizomes are trimmed, labelled and tied in bundles with twine, if the order contains more than one rhizome of a particular variety. The Iris are then brought to the packing shed and there the orders are matched against the shipping sheets and packed in excelsior. A carbon copy of the shipping sheet is included in the box. In those days the customer received an “order confirmation” letter before the iris were shipped. Allegedly there were no errors either in address or orders because all this was contained on the “order confirmation” and in case of error, the postal service would have returned the confirmation before iris shipment. In addition the shipping sheet contained in the box was a carbon copy of the “order confirmation”. And this is how it was done in the days before Bertrand Farr’s death in 1924.

After Mr. Farr’s death, the operation did not cease to exist. It was moved to Weiser Park, a much larger property, and called “Farr Nursery Company”, where the iris continued to be sold . From what I can gather, Weiser Park also sold a lot of other garden plants, and was located on a large State highway convenient to the public. The business became more lucrative as a local garden center rather than a mail order one. By 1928, there were no more “elaborate” Iris Catalogs published, but Weiser Park promised its mail order buyers a ‘bulletin’ of new crops every week to keep up with the available varieties of plants. The very first bulletin/price list issued in Feb 1928 featured Farr’s iris. But also listed, in a rather ominous manner, were several hundred other iris that were to be sold off, never to be offered again. Probably Weiser Park stopped offering iris altogether in a few years, as the master hybridizer was gone, and there were no new Farr creations to offer to the public.

Credit given to the 1929 AIS checklist as a basis for most of this article, particularly the information provided by John Ravel.