Ask the gardener: Save the irises and monarch butterflies

What to do this week The rainy weather almost made up for our spring water deficit. Keep shopping for plants, but wait for the garden to dry before planting so you don’t compress the soil. Moist soil helps you pull up long roots like dandelions in one piece, so weed out invasive plants now before they go to seed. Cut the roses in the morning or evening just above a leaflet that grows outward to encourage an open direction for the growth of new stems. Trim the ends of the flower stems under running water just before arranging them. Sprinkle fertilizer around the foliage of spent spring bulbs and wait until it turns completely yellow before removing it. Transplant tomatoes, squash, peppers, melons, cucumbers, and eggplants in the garden. Sow the cilantro, beans, carrots and corn. Choose lettuce, spinach, strawberries and peas.

Q. My irises are doing well, but they are surrounded and populated with violets and what looks like evening primrose. Will irises be harmed by these wild flowers growing with them? I like violets and primroses, but I like irises more.

JC, Dover, NH

A. Violets and evening primrose (Oenothera) are aggressive plants that have likely planted themselves in your flower bed without your permission. Instead of wildflowers, I would call them weeds, which I define as any plant growing where I don’t want it. Even a pretty plant is undesirable if it overwhelms its neighbors. A gardener is a bit of a horticultural police officer whose job it is to protect resident plants from invaders. I used to have a wait-and-see attitude towards germs of unknown origin, hoping that they would become some kind of free delicious gift from nature. No chance. They all grow up to be thugs.

Removing them is hard work. When the weeds are relatively few and small, it is weeding. When they’ve taken over, it’s time to renovate the garden and you may need to hire someone to do it. The “good” news is that common iris flowers (which have downy beards much like caterpillars) like their roots to be dug up, divided, and replanted about one foot apart every five years to give them enough. space to flower well, so combine this chore of maintenance with the elimination of weeds. When flowering is complete, cut off the iris stems and foliage by two-thirds for cleanliness, and remove all iris, primrose, and violet roots from the garden. Hose down the soil to expose fleshy iris roots that look a bit like fresh ginger from the grocer. Throw away the leaner violet and primrose roots and seed pods in the trash. An inexpensive soil sieve from the hardware store can help separate pieces of weed root from your soil. Divide the cleaned iris roots into smaller sections with three foliage fans attached to each. Replant them horizontally under just 1 inch of soil. Give your iris roots extra clean or move them to another bed. Pull out new weeds that germinate in the months to come.

Unfortunately, some professional yard crews are trained to “mow and blow” (with a lot of noise and air pollution) but not weed. This is why the suburbs have many lawns and few gardens. Like home cooking, gardening is a DIY business. Young people looking for the extra cash may well learn how to weed and then charge their older neighbors for what the market will bear.

Q. What can I do to help save the monarch butterflies?

GF, Millis

A. These beloved orange and black striped butterflies are in trouble, in part because climate change is making their annual winter migration to Mexico more difficult. You can help them by growing milkweed, the only plant their finicky caterpillars will eat. My favorite kinds are shiny orange Tuberous Asclepias and wild rose Asclepias syriaca, which spreads underground in colonies in my sunny border of shrubs. June is National Pollinator Month. Celebrate by avoiding pesticides, which kill insects and are generally more dangerous to animals and humans than herbicides, which kill plants. Ask your tree and lawn businesses for alternative treatments. Visit for more information.

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