The Pickle Barrel House Historic Iris Garden

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Unidentified iris – study name Austin Healey, named after the owner’s dog, who was named after the car

[Note from Nan: We’re thrilled to welcome a new Guest Contributor today: Nancy McDonald. Nancy was Managing Editor of the much-missed American Cottage Gardener magazine, and she remains dedicated to cottage gardening and heirloom plants even through the tough winter conditions of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.]

Our town sits at the end of a 25-mile driveway, in the middle of blessed nowhere on the shore of Lake Superior. Built for the lumber industry in the 1880s, it was a boomtown for a couple of decades. When timber played out in the early 1900s, pretty well everyone upped and left. The last train went south, and railroad workers pulled up the tracks behind them.

When the white settlers had come – and especially, I imagine, the women – they brought their favorite flowers with them. I suppose that when they left, they took some away. But you don’t dig a whole clump of irises when you’re packing your trunk, you just tuck in a toe or two, so they left a lot of irises behind. We find them now in fields, at old home sites, in the woods, in forgotten corners, and in gardens.

2 - Cathy's Field 6-23-09 - resizeOld bearded irises gone wild in Cathy’s field

Trudy, my mother-in-law, always wanted to plant a garden full of these beautiful old bearded irises. She thought it would be fun to collect them and their stories; she always did like a good story. We never got around to it, and now she is gone. But last summer, when the chance came to plant such a garden, I did.

The Pickle Barrel House, in Grand Marais, Michigan, is a fascinating little building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. (You can find out more about its history here.) Now owned and operated as a museum by the Grand Marais Historical Society, the Pickle Barrel House sits on a 1/8-acre corner lot, surrounded by a wooden rail fence, right downtown. A small garden of Michigan native plants grows behind the building.

3 - Pickle Barrel 11-09 The Pickle Barrel House

This summer I volunteered to work on the little garden there with my friend Cathy, who is a member of the Historical Society. One day, as we weeded, I told her of Trudy’s dream, and how the Old House Gardens catalog, which has just begun carrying old irises, had reminded me of the project. Cathy said, “Why not plant them here?” Why not, indeed? We quickly obtained permission from the members of the Historical Society, and plans began.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         The garden site, with Grand Marais Harbor in the background

When the bearded irises bloomed around town, I put a small article in the Grand Marais Gazette requesting pups of any older irises people might have – and did people ever respond! Over the next few weeks, I photographed dozens of irises and took measurements and notes, securing promises for plants later on. I asked the international Historic Iris Preservation Society (HIPS) for help in identifying the old treasures we found. From them I learned how to photograph the flowers for identification, and what plant parts to measure. The history of the irises, their provenance, is vital information, too, and this I carefully recorded for every iris photographed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         The garden under construction

Delay followed delay in the construction of the garden, but in the end we got the space prepared. The new garden sits on the former site of the warehouse for Hill’s Store, torn down in 1975. The soil is essentially glorified beach sand, plentifully larded with broken glass, old nails, and odd bits and pieces of junk. A friend came with his excavator and removed the sod, such as it was. Another kind person donated a dump truck load of topsoil. My neighbor owns a former sawmill, with a mountain of 30-year-old, partially decomposed sawdust out back. We shoveled one trailer load after another of this brown gold onto the garden. Two wonderful men with tillers ground it all in for us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Ready to plant

Meanwhile, the friendly folks at HIPS had a proposal for us. Would we like to become an official HIPS Display Garden? All we’d need is a minimum of 15 positively identified, labeled, historic irises, in addition to however many as-yet unidentified irises we cared to grow. (Unidentified irises have no ID; therefore they are called “noids.”) The garden must also be open to the public; this one certainly is, all the time, and it’s free. Incredibly generous donations from HIPS members allowed us to far exceed the 15-named-variety minimum. We bought a few others from the Tennessee nursery Iris City Gardens. We’re well on our way to officialdom.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Irises for Pickle Barrel Garden

In a display garden, people should be able to get an intimate view of the flowers. Therefore the large corner bed is divided by two L-shaped paths, each wide enough for a walker or a stroller. The planting beds are only 3 feet wide, so no iris is too far off the path to see and smell. Because of these narrow beds, the space allotted each variety is only 15″x15″, so we’ll have to stay right on top of dividing the irises as they grow. Pups, carefully labeled, will be sold at fund-raising events for the Historical Society.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The grid system

Mapping and labeling are vital in a display garden. With string and tent pegs we marked out a grid, so each plant could be accurately placed and mapped. At planting time, we buried a label northwest of every iris. Large display labels set out in the spring will be taken in for the winter. For noids, we’ll show the study name (that is, the name we’re using until we can identify the iris; e.g., Linnamaki Purple) and where the plant was found. For identified irises, we’ll give the cultivar name, the breeder, and the date of introduction.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Linnamaki Purple – study name of an iris from the old Linnamaki farm

We’re keeping careful computer records of every plant, with its history, measurements, and digital photos. A print-out of this ever-expanding Reference Book will be available for use by Pickle Barrel House visitors. We plan a tri-fold brochure about the garden that visitors may have for free, and a larger, more detailed brochure costing a nominal buck or two.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Planted at last!

Many people around town are finding that “that old thing” is actually an exciting bit of living history, and perhaps of some value after all. Here we have Argie’s iris, that she found more than 50 years ago down by the railroad tracks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Argie’s iris

We have the Baker Grade iris, found at the site of the switchman’s cabin, at the foot of the Baker Grade on the old railroad line.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Old iris found at the switchman’s cabin at the foot of Baker Grade

We have Judy’s grandpa John Krempa’s little gold iris.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA John Krempa’s iris

We have pale yellow irises, probably ‘Flavescens’, from the old Webb farm.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Irises, probably ‘Flavescens’, at the old Webb farm

We have Sal’s irises, and Dick & John’s, and Eva Mae’s.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Dick & John’s soft gold iris

Is that little variegata-type from the old Linnamaki place ‘Sans Souci’ or ‘Honorabile’ or something else again? How about the one from Abrahamson’s old house? Are all the tall, small-flowered, super-fragrant lavender irises the same variety of Iris pallida, or are they each a little different?

The first round of irises has been planted; a few await transplanting after next summer’s bloom. We planned space for about 130 irises, so there’s room for more as we find them. Other plants in the garden include a young Preston hybrid lilac ‘Minuet’, Rosa glauca, peonies ‘Mikado’ and ‘Chestine Goudy’, and my favorite historic Siberian iris, ‘Summer Sky’. A generous donor bought us many spring bulbs from Old House Gardens, and Scott Kunst, owner of that wonderful bulb company, very kindly donated some extras for us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Siberian iris ‘Summer Sky’ (Cleveland, 1935)

Spring bulbs will give us early bloom, beginning with snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), tiny Iris reticulata ‘Cantab’, and white Anemone blanda, followed by a troupe of glorious daffodils. Then the bearded irises will bloom, with the peonies and lilac. And will the garden then be a restful green for the rest of the year? No, that won’t do at all. Even now we pore over seed catalogs, seeking annuals popular in the Pickle Barrel Era, the 1920s and 1930s. We’ve discovered a curious thing: although there are many lists of antique annual species, it’s remarkably difficult to find introduction dates for cultivars of those species. Our best resources so far have been seed catalogs from those decades, and great fun we’ve had collecting them. The next challenge will be to find modern sources. Many catalogs claiming to carry seeds of heirloom plants offer mostly modern cultivars of old favorites. Finding the older cultivars is a pleasant winter game, a fine pursuit for snowy days.

If you enjoyed this article, get email updates (it's free).


, , , ,

28 Responses to The Pickle Barrel House Historic Iris Garden

  1. Les February 14, 2010 at 6:55 am #

    What a fantastic story, and I applaud all your hard work. I look forward to seeing more photos of the garden.

  2. Tamara February 14, 2010 at 10:44 am #

    Love your blog! Love Iris too :) We use very few bulbs at our greenhouse but maybe I should rethink that :)

  3. Nancy McDonald February 14, 2010 at 10:45 am #

    Thanks, Les. We’ll definitely photograph the garden in bloom. I’m sure the first year will be a little sparse on iris bloom, but we’re hoping the spring bulbs and annuals will make up for that. By the way, the best source we’ve found so far for historic annuals is the Chiltern Seed catalog.

    We’re having so much fun with this project that we plan another – this one a garden of very hardy roses – for the nearby Old Post Office Museum grounds.

    Nancy

  4. Henrietta February 14, 2010 at 2:05 pm #

    Enjoyed your article. I too found an iris, Wabash, growing in a field. There was still signs of foundation of a buidling near by.
    Speaking of roses I have a very old sweet smelling dbl red rose that came with our farm All I can find out about the roses that a salesman was selling them in this area in 1930′s. They bloom in June.

  5. Jayne February 14, 2010 at 6:55 pm #

    I really enjoyed reading about the Pickle Barrel House and the gardens. Kudos to you for all the hard work you are putting in. Those irises are beautiful.

  6. Nancy McDonald February 14, 2010 at 8:06 pm #

    We’re very excited to see the old irises in bloom. We love our local noids.

    One of the plants we have in the other flower bed at the Pickle Barrel is a rambler rose from the former site of the Pickle Barrel House out at Sable Lake. We haven’t been able to identify it, though it’s almost certainly one of the myriad offspring of ‘Turner’s Crimson Rambler’. Ours, which we call the Diva because of her gorgeous but prickly attitude, has very double, nearly scentless, cherry red flowers in large clusters. We’ll probably never know what she really is. I showed photos to Peter Beales and he said she’s not ‘Excelsa’, though she’s close. I don’t mind that some of these old treasures will never be identified; they’re just as beautiful with no official name.

    Nancy

  7. Sweet Bay February 14, 2010 at 8:58 pm #

    Wonderful article. I love historic iris and look forward to seeing more of this garden.

  8. Melody February 14, 2010 at 9:04 pm #

    such an interesting article! I have some pass along plants that i don’t know the “real names” so I named them for the person who gave them to me.

  9. Lori B. February 14, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

    Nance, I watched you and Cathy work hard in that garden last summer and fall and am really looking forward to seeing the fruit of your labor. If it is going to be anything like your cottage garden, it will be beautiful. This is a wonderful article!!

  10. Nancy McDonald February 15, 2010 at 9:13 am #

    Thanks, Lori! I’m blushing prettily.

    You’ll be able to watch the daily progress of the irises and annuals blooming. For everyone else who’s interested, we’ll be sure to take lots of photos, and I’ve already promised Nan another article to follow up. This is fun!

    Nancy

  11. Susan B. February 15, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    Great article, beautiful pictures. Did you know that my middle name is Iris? Come down to New Orleans in March-April and gather some wild purples and yellows for the garden!

  12. thistleandthorn February 15, 2010 at 10:02 am #

    Thanks for sharing! I can really appreciate how much hard work has gone into this endeavor. We readers get to enjoy, without all the back ache!

  13. sillydoggarden February 15, 2010 at 11:24 am #

    Fascinating post! I collected some iris planted around the graves of my great-grandparents in a tiny country cemetery in the middle of nowhere in southwest Nebraska. I have no idea who planted them or exactly when. They’re a lovely pale yellow and now I’m wondering if they might be ‘Flavescens’. I’ll have to investigate further.

  14. Nancy McDonald February 15, 2010 at 12:37 pm #

    Susan Iris, thanks for the invitation! Sadly, Louisiana irises would just sit in this garden and shiver. They’re gorgeous, though. I especially covet the rusty red Iris fulva.

    Thistle, you’re too funny. I figure people pay good money to join a gym to get the kind of exercise I get in the garden – plus I get flowers!

    Silly Dog, check out the HIPS site (the link is in the article). Flavescens seems to have been carried all over the country by settlers. It is one tough iris – and so pretty.

    Nancy

  15. Dee/reddirtramblings February 15, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    This was a great guest post. I loved the names of the people who gave the irises almost as much as the irises themselves. I’m a big fan of the old ones which look so graceful in the garden with other plants. Here they bloom at the same time as the peonies. Thank you for creating such a garden and this post.~~Dee

  16. Nancy McDonald February 15, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    Dee, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I know, the study names are such fun, I almost don’t want to identify the old noids. With us they also bloom with peonies in June. I laugh when I hear people from more reasonable climates talk about having peonies for high school graduation – we have daffodils.

    Nancy

  17. Rand B. Lee February 16, 2010 at 2:29 pm #

    A friend emailed me the link to this site, and I was so happy to read of the latest product of your indefatigability, Nance! Reminds me of the old iris that used to bloom in all my neighbors’ yards when I lived in Santa Fe on Lujan Street. It was a brown and yellow German, and I wish I had thought to ask somebody where it came from. Irises do very well in Santa Fe’s alkaline clay.

  18. Nancy McDonald February 16, 2010 at 5:47 pm #

    Hi, Rand! Those old brown and yellow irises just keep going. There are lots of them, and the names are all confused – and they’re all charming, as far as I’m concerned. What amazes me is that they’ll grow in so many different parts of this enormous country. They’re keepers!

    Nancy

  19. Badger March 4, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    Great article (and pictures). I saw the Pickle Barrel House in summer of 2007 which was also my first trip to Grand Marais despite having lived in the UP for 30+ years.

    I really like the “noid” names. “Linnamaki Purple” sounds like music and looks so beautiful. Can’t wait to take another trip to G. M. and see the Pickle Barrel House again – now with all those lovely iris.

  20. Donna Williamson March 4, 2010 at 6:14 pm #

    Nancy:
    Wonderful article.

    You might look at the large variety of Buck roses for your next project. They are lovely, strong, fragrant, and disease resistant.

  21. Diane Gibson March 4, 2010 at 11:28 pm #

    Love your project. I found an old iris at a country road crossing. Several others from a preacher who was bulldozing his yard & gave me any & all I could take. Some tiny & all beautiful. The mystery is fun. Thanks for sharing your story.

  22. Nancy McDonald March 7, 2010 at 8:46 pm #

    Badger, I’m glad you like our noid names. We have fun with them. I expect many of them will carry those names forever, as we’re not having much luck identifying them.

    Donna, you’ll be pleased to hear that we’re featuring a whole bunch of Buck roses in the new garden. I’m most excited about ‘Distant Drums’. We’re also featuring Canadian Parkland and Explorer roses, as well as a selection of old roses and other treasures.

    Diane, I’m glad you like the project. Isn’t it fun to get these pass-along beauties and see them bloom for the first time? It’s also nice to know they’re really tough (or they wouldn’t have survived), so they’ll be around a long time, even without perfect care and conditions.

    Nancy

  23. Dave Kozakiewicz March 10, 2010 at 10:42 pm #

    As a youngster I spent a vacation in Grand Marais. I don’t remember this building but I do remember that the largest and most vigorous Lupine and Delphinium I have ever seen in my life were growing out of cracks in a sidewalk. This is a wonderful story and project. I wish the whole thing and all those involved every success. Dave

  24. Nancy McDonald March 10, 2010 at 11:54 pm #

    Thanks, Dave! Yes, it’s some consolation for all the plants that will not grow here (I currently covet Rhododendron cinnabarinum) that lupines, delphiniums, and other cool-weather treasures practically grow like weeds. Our meadows full of lupines are positively Rumphius-esque.

    Nancy

  25. Clare V March 31, 2010 at 9:20 pm #

    Seeing these little familiar “faces” reminded me so much of my grandmother who had a beautiful Iris garden, it brought a lump to my throat.
    I can see her still, in a colorful house dress, hose rolled down around her ankles hoeing with vigor! Thanks for the memory!

  26. Nancy McDonald April 1, 2010 at 11:21 am #

    Oh, how sweet! And that’s exactly why we made this garden. History falls to parking lots and shopping malls, as the singer put it, and grandmothers’ gardens all over the country are disappearing. Well, the irises aren’t, not if we can help it! You can play, too – we’re encouraging people in all communities to do something similar, even on a very small scale.

    Thanks for the nice note, Clare!

    Nancy

  27. Katie May 28, 2010 at 6:33 am #

    A wonderful article by a wonderful writer. You are a gift to the people of Grand Marais!

  28. Nancy McDonald May 28, 2010 at 8:45 am #

    Thanks, Katie! I’m blushing prettily. The irises are now starting to bloom; more should open today. Very exciting!