A Visit with Iris Breeder Terry Aitken

I love irises.

Which is dangerous, because I happen to live in one of the hottest spots in the country for iris breeding, growing, and sales. Within an hour, I can be at Schreiner’s, Mid-America Garden, or Mt. Pleasant Iris Farm. Or Aitken’s Salmon Creek Garden, which is where I went today. Here’s what I saw.

Salmon Creek Garden is in Vancouver, Washington, an easy 25-minute drive from my home in Portland. This 40+ year-old family business hybridizes irises (and orchids) and ships them all over the world.

Owner Terry Aitken has received many awards for his irises and has served as president of the American Iris Society. He’s kind of a big deal. He’s incredibly busy this time of year, but when I showed up unannounced today, he was wonderfully gracious to me and took the time to show me around and answer all my questions. His head gardener, Daniel, talked with me, too, and gave me a little tour, and Terry’s wife, Barbara, greeted me when I arrived and took me to the iris fields.

I am most interested in dwarf bearded irises, so that was what I was most hoping to see, and I wasn’t disappointed. They are at peak right now.

‘Gecko’ is a miniature dwarf bearded iris hybridized by Terry (all of the following irises are Terry’s, except as noted). MDB irises are the shortest and bloom the earliest. This one really pops, even on a glaringly bright day like today.

While I was taking photos, Terry pulled a little a packet of pollen out of his fishing vest (a handy piece of apparel for a plant hybridizer to have), and dabbed it on the stigmas of one clump of his ‘Gecko’ irises. It’s so easy! I need to try this at home.

OK, the following are all standard dwarf bearded irises. This is ‘Fairy Fireworks’, a rebloomer. Terry likes to try to get irises to rebloom in August or September, or at least get them to have an extended bloom period in the spring. He said there aren’t many hybridizers working on rebloomers.

I think I need this one, ‘Bennett’s Star’. On the website this is called peach, but it’s not really. It’s a caramelly color, yellow with a hint of peach and tan. Very unusual and striking.

‘Let It Snow’. A nice white with a hint of green. It’s a rebloomer.

I may need this one as well. ‘Maui Sunrise’. Those colors! Terry said he’s fond of orange irises and likes to work on improving them.

‘Luminaire’. There were several deep purple and near-black irises in the display beds. Both Terry and Daniel remarked that black irises are trendy now.

Some of the intermediate bearded irises were starting to bloom. I love this bicolor selection, ‘Fast Forward’. It had tons of flowers and is a rebloomer.

Another of Aitken’s rebloomers, an intermediate bearded called ‘Many Mahalos’. He seemed especially proud of it. It was loaded with buds and blooms.

Squeee! Daniel showed me some aril-bred irises they carry, and I definitely need to explore this group. They’re bred from Middle Eastern species, so they should do great in my hot, dry-summer garden. This is ‘Afreet’. It’s not an Aitken iris, but a selection by Marky Smith of Yakima, Washington.

Salmon Creek also grows tall bearded, Siberian, Japanese, Spuria, and Louisiana irises, but none of them were blooming yet. Terry and Daniel encouraged me to come back later and see the later ones, and I encourage you to do the same. You can also visit with Terry at the iris show at the Master Gardener’s Spring Garden Fair in Canby on Sunday, May 5 and at the iris show at Portland Nursery on June 16.

As if they don’t have enough on their plates, Salmon Creek Garden also does orchids! Their greenhouse is packed with them.

I know very little about orchids, but I enjoy looking at them. There were some exquisite ones, and they all looked healthy and well-grown.

This little guy was inconspicuous, but filled the whole greenhouse with the scent of coconut.

The greenhouse is also home to Terry’s iris seedlings. Who knows what wonders lurk here?

Thank you, Salmon Creek Garden, for a fantastic peek behind the scenes!