Bearded irises, or flags, are making their last stand in Willow Street

Bil Bowden

Just about six miles south of Lancaster's downtown square in Willow Street, Bob McCullough works in his bearded iris garden.  Well, that's not entirely correct.

It's not exactly work, since his 40-year old garden has long ago become his baby, so to speak. And as everyone knows, it's only work if you'd rather be doing something else.

There's not much else that McCullough would rather be doing.

The irises are shriveling quickly and Sunday's downpour didn't help. Once the flowers are gone, McCullough can't tell which plants are which color, so quickly head to 200 East Penn Grant Road, Willow Street. The garden is behind his home at East Penn Grant and Silver Lane.  From the Lancaster square, head south for 6.1 miles on U.S. 222 to state route 272.  Turn left at the traffic light at Penn Grant Road. McCullough's home is on the right.

He's nearly 79 years old now, and that surprises most garden visitors. He sports a white beard, but his 'spark', his enthusiasm, belongs to someone much younger. He's up and down, again and again and again, planting and transplanting. His knee pads get a workout, but at his age he's happy that his knees still work.

His eyes open wide when asked about his garden. He's been asked these same questions for forty years, but never tires of talking about them.

"What's your favorite?"

"When should we separate them?"

"Do you know all their names?"

Yes, four years and yes.

Bearded irises start popping after the tulips and daffodils have faded, maybe a bit earlier than roses. By Memorial Day, the appropriately nicknamed 'flags' are in their glory.

Colors range from every shade of blue imaginable (some are almost black) to gold (bronze), an electric yellow named Amarillo Frill. A burgundy so delicious you can almost drink it.  The white "Kennadi Angel" is so bright it makes your eyes hurt-- in a good way.

Visitors often come for one or two plans, but leave with a half dozen or more. Most plants are $5, some are $10. Bring cash, no plastic. Browsers drop a colored piece of yarn on the colors they like, and McCullough pops them out of the ground, but doesn't hand them over until he explains how to plant them with a diagram-- not too deep, the rhizome showing above ground.  Watch for borers and snails, he says. You smile on your way back to the car, but don't miss McCullough's colorful lupines (they're huge), or in cages, the napping rabbits, quail and noisy chickens.

Unfortunately, 'flags' don't last all summer like some flowers. And like tulips and daffodils, they only brighten the landscape for a short time.

But if it brings a smile, it's long enough.