- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 5, 2016

LAWNDALE, N.C. (AP) - Old Dog. Young Dog. Several Stupid Dogs. Please drive slowly” reads the sign on the farm gate.

Up the dusty driveway walks a woman dressed in a purple sun hat, a floral purple jacket that belonged to her mother and white slacks. She’s pulled her silver hair back into a pony tail secured by a lavender bow. A small pack of dogs in all shapes and sizes try to keep up with her brisk pace.

Squinting as she looks into the late afternoon sun, Shirley Spoon Knox puts her right hand to her forehead and when she recognizes her invited guests, she smiles and opens the gate.

She makes the introductions as the dogs circle around her. There’s Conrad Bark a Lot, the poodle, who eagerly announces new arrivals at the farm, and Daisy Max, the Jack Russell Terrier who patrols the fence line around the farm. Nigel the beagle has come along as well, but Lucy, the German Shepherd, has hung back by the white picket fence in front of the house, waiting to see what the fuss is all about.

“Don’t get to close to her,” Shirley says pointing to Marlene, the Newfoundland, with a penchant for drooling on visitors.

It’s a warm afternoon and with the breeze picking up the talk on the trek down the gravel driveway turns to the weather. An early evening thunderstom would suit Knox just fine. She’s been waiting on rain all week. Her beloved bearded iris need a good soaking.

It’s late April and it’s show time at Knoxhaven Iris Garden in rural Lawndale, the time of year when her hundreds of “poor man orchids” as they are called are in their glory. Shirley has watched them closely for days and picked this afternoon as the best time to show them off.

And they don’t disappoint her.

The first bed, the Circle Garden, in front of the 1874 Queen Anne Cottage she restored, is in full bloom.

She points to some of her favorites but is anxious to give a tour of the house. It’s still heated with wood and she’s filled it with a collection of period pieces, including three pianos.

“It was almost gone when I bought it … no windows, no doors, no floors. My daughter said, ‘You can’t do that, Mama.’” But Shirley did.

A couple from California bought her last house and she’s poured almost every cent from that sale into this farm.

In the kitchen, she’s set out seven photo albums filled with photos of her irises. She’s also laid out a collection of gardening newsletters that have written about her garden or published her advice. And she excitedly shows the invitation she’s received for her 60th college reunion. She pulls out a Coldwater Creek catalog and flips through the pages until she finds the iris print dress she has ordered. She can’t wait. Yes, she spent $100, but listen, it’s a special occasion.

“I’m a Meredith girl,” she says proudly of her alma mater.

The road of life that led Shirley to this farm comes filled with adventure. She studied religion and home economics at Meredith and thought she might be a preacher. She gave one sermon, felt like she had moved the audience and decided that was that. She became a teacher and lived here and there across the country including California. She didn’t get interested in growing irises until she had heart trouble several years ago.

It was her brother’s idea. Don Spoon, a retired biology Georgetown University professor, owns Winterberry Gardens in Cross Junction, Va., home to more than 6,000 iris cultivars. He and his wife, Ginny, have won top awards nationally and internationally.

“He said, ‘You’re not going to be a cardiac cripple,’” she recalls. So, he sent her some iris rhizomes and that’s how it all started. Then, he sent some more. And some more. Now each fall, he sends her 200 more to add to her gardens.

The sister and brother come by their love of gardening from their mother, Lilla, who founded the Charlotte Iris Society in the late 1940s. Don and Shirley grew up in the heart of Charlotte — half a block from Memorial Stadium. “This is how our yard looked,” said Shirley, gesturing across her iris garden in her side yard. Her mom lived to age 97 and grew irises from 1948 to 2003.

“We always had a yard full,” she says.

But as a little girl, she was an unbashed tomboy and “Daddy’s Girl” and she had scant interest in her mother’s prized collection.

But years later, she still remembers some of her mother’s advice about iris.

“Mama said they were divas, don’t make them mad,” Shirley said.

When brother Don laid down his challenge to grow irises, Shirley took the suggestion on with gusto. She’s earned a reputation among gardeners across the Southeast for her collection. They come from near and far to buy them. Just a few days after my visit, a garden club from Tryon was set to visit Knoxhaven.

“It’s going to be chaos,” she says with a wide smile, obviously delighted. Her daughter, a nurse, will be there to help her take orders and then in the fall — September is the best time to plant them — Shirley will send them out by mail.

Each April and early May, about 75 of her regulars visit the farm to see what’s in bloom and to place orders. She counts between 250 and 300 gardeners as customers.

“Sometimes I have a dickens of a time keeping track of them,” she says. She’s been known to pick up the phone and call customers to see how the irises she’s sold them are doing.

The visits to the farm, made by appointment, are important to some iris fans because they want to see the color and bloom for themselves, not trust a photo in a catalog.

Shirley also sells her irises at the Foothills Farmers Market in uptown Shelby, where she’s known as the “Iris Lady” for her signature purple outfits and her lavender compact car. With each purchase, she hands out a three-page set of instructions and care tips she’s put together.

Irises are among the easiest perennials to grow — drought resistant and not too picky when it comes to soil. And their drooping beardlike petals, with their ruffled edges, put on quite a show. And they come in every color. As one garden writer put it, the range of colors “puts a new box of crayons to shame.” Even after their blooms have finished their show, the lush, tall green stalks add texture to any garden.

When choosing irises, Shirley recommends getting a mix of so you can have blooms most of the year — dwarfs in March, medians in April, tall bearded in April and May, and rebloomers from July December. A few are all season bloomers.

But the real trick to growing iris?

“Well,” says Shirley, thinking for a moment. “It helps to sing to them. It helps to pay attention to them.”

Yes, she talks to her irises. A lot.

During this visit, she stopped midstep to offer a word of encouragement or warning.

“I’m going to arrest you,” she playfully scolded one iris she wasn’t happy with, her voice climbing an octave as she finishes the sentence.

All of them have names, written on markers in front of them. There’s Red Hot Mama, Velvet Elvis, Hot Chick, Beauty Becomes Her, Katniss (from the “Hunger Games” — yes, pop culture isn’t lost on iris lovers), Sailor’s Warning, Allegheny Rose. There plenty more where those came from: Disco Music, High Desert and Drama Queen and Scarlett and Monsoon Moon. She has her mother’s prized Jesse’s Song, a cultivar that dates back to the 1920s.

In the world of iris growers, the person who creates the hybrid gets to name them. Her brother named one for her: “Sister Shirley.” She still laughs about that one.

Pointing to “About Town” — a blend of soft mauve and vibrant violet — she says, “I thought it was the most beautiful iris I had ever seen.”

___

Information from: The Gaston Gazette, http://www.gastongazette.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide