Irises multiply into flower-filled destination

LOOMIS, Calif. — Mary Ann Horton accidentally fell into the iris business.

About 25 years ago, she started salvaging heirloom irises from abandoned foothill farms. “I’d dig up old irises and bring them home,” she said.

When she discovered colorful hybrid irises, she bought eight to plant along her driveway — and her gardening hobby quickly multiplied into a family enterprise. Now, the retired community college math professor grows her favorite flowers by the thousands.

With their colorful “flags” fluttering in the afternoon breeze, long rows of bearded irises fill the hillside fields next to her Loomis home, which has become a springtime destination for flower fanatics.

On a 159-year-old homestead, the Horton Iris Garden has evolved into a local destination for this beloved flower. On large swaths of the 40-acre farm, Horton grows 1,370 varieties of bearded iris with more than 1,100 available for sale.

“Plus I’ve got another 110 varieties coming on board,” she said.

“When we first opened our garden to the public (in 1999), there were four iris gardens just in Loomis,” Horton recalled. “The iris became Loomis’ official flower. There used to be iris farms all over.”

Sacramento, Calif.-area iris farms shriveled up and disappeared, however, as housing developments expanded and farm owners aged, she said. Now, gardeners are rediscovering this old-fashioned flower, thanks to those eye-catching hybrids and the iris’s natural drought tolerance.

“I mail them all over,” said Horton, who sells iris rhizomes via her website. “Last year was my best ever.”

Planted amid dozens of heritage oaks, the garden has become a multigenerational project at the homestead, which has remained in the same family since 1857. Doug Horton, Mary Ann’s son, now helps with the iris business. His art studio and gallery shares space with the rhizomes in the farm’s new barn.

“Irises are very drought tolerant; that’s helped business,” Doug Horton said. “And they’re so easy to grow, you can’t hardly kill them.”

For many years, the land served as a fruit orchard, he explained. A packing shed and “water box” circa 1920 still remain on the property along with myriad farm antiques.

Part of the property is still farmed. Local melon expert Jakob Stevens is growing 25 varieties of melon for a new farm stand to open this summer.

Ed Horton, Mary Ann’s husband, moved back to the family farm in the early 1980s and remodeled his grandmother’s century-old ranch house. The home had sat empty for decades, with dense overgrowth rising around it and swallowing the orchards.

“It was a jungle,” Mary Ann Horton recalled. “When you drove down the driveway, you could hear the blackberry vines scraping on the car.”

As she got into gardening, she realized the best spots for her irises were where the blackberry bramble was thickest — in full sun. So the family cleared out the jungle and created more iris garden.

“I’m always expanding,” she said with a smile. “I started with one row between two rocks. Then, there were three rows and 100 varieties. That’s the year we opened (the garden for visitors).”

Now, thousands of flowers greet the curious. “It can be overwhelming,” Doug Horton noted. “Some people don’t know where to start.”

In April and May, the Hortons open their garden to the public for free, with all the iris varieties labeled. After touring the garden, visitors can order their favorite flowers for delivery or pickup in August, when irises are dormant and ready to divide. Each rhizome produces three to five offshoots annually.

The Hortons dig up and replant most of their rhizomes every summer, harvesting enough to fill customers’ orders. That annual ritual also keeps the garden under control.

“Irises in a bed all change to one color for a reason – the most aggressive iris wins,” Mary Ann Horton said. “It dominates all the other (varieties), so you end up with just one. The other varieties may still be there but won’t bloom because they’ve been squeezed too tight.”

She recommends digging, dividing and replanting rhizomes every three to five years.

This spring’s display at Horton Iris Garden features several varieties that have yet to be introduced for sale. Next year, the farm will host a regional convention for iris clubs from three states.

“It takes two years for the clumps to become established,” she said. “Some of them will bloom the first year. But by next year, they’ll really be something.”