Bonnie Nichols and her husband, Hooker (yes, that’s his given name), own Hillcrest Gardens in Terrell, where they hybridize and grow an award-winning selection of irises and daylilies. The couple has served as iris judges around the world, and, as the past president of the Iris Society of Dallas and current president of the Novelty Iris Society, Bonnie is about to host the American Iris Society’s annual national convention here in mid-April. But for now, all she can talk about are the snakes.
“We’ve had the property for about four years, but we knew from the beginning that there were copperheads because our neighbors said they had killed 60,” Bonnie says of their 2-acre commercial garden. “We killed a couple of them, but we hadn’t seen any in a while until last September, when I stepped out the back door Sunday night and got bitten on my right foot. Long story longer, we don’t have anything other than the volunteer fire department. So the two guys came, and I was like, ‘What do I do?’ ”
She ended up in the hospital in Rowlett, but it turned out that she didn’t need any antivenom because the bite “was just a drive-by from a baby.” She knows now, however, that by this time of year those babies are grown. “We’ve got 250 people coming to the garden for an iris tour in April,” Bonnie says, laughing. “Don’t stray from the path, don’t reach down, wear boots, and you’ll be safe.”
The national convention will take place in North Texas April 12–16 and includes bus tours of five private gardens, from the Nichols’ to other award winners in Plano, Whitesboro, Gun Barrel City, and Farmers Branch. “It is just like a pageant, a beauty pageant, because it’s like everything is happening all at once and it’s real exciting,” Bonnie says.
Her goal is to get young people hooked. “Many times what happens is, our parents or grandparents are involved with growing irises, and the grandkids or the kids come to the meetings with them,” she says. “Then, you know, we all reach that certain age, in teenage years or whatever, and it’s like, Ugh, I’m never gonna do this. But then when they go to college and they get their first house, they remember, My grandparents and parents grew irises, and then they become interested again. So if we can get ’em as youth, even though we know that some of ’em are gonna drop off, they come back to us. That’s critical. Whether it’s irises or anything else, we have to continue that trait. We can’t eat concrete. We’re gonna have to continue with food crops and floral crops.”
The word “iris” comes from the ancient Greek word for rainbow.
Bonnie and Hooker themselves became obsessed with irises at an early age. Bonnie got the bug from her mother; Hooker grew up in Northwestern Oklahoma, where his aunt had a commercial iris garden. After the couple got married and moved into a house on Northaven, in 1992, they started planting irises and daylilies around their home. Hooker began developing his own hybrids, and the couple exhibited the results of their labors at shows. Then they both got certified as iris judges. They haven’t looked back. Except, of course, to check for copperheads.
Local Iris Growers
Hillcrest Iris & Daylily Gardens
The Nichols grow more than 5,000 irises and 1,000 daylilies at their commercial 2-acre property in Terrell. You’ll also find annuals such as sunflowers, zinnias, and cosmos. Call ahead. 15076 County Rd. 349, Terrell. 214-676-9892.
Seandel Iris Gardens
At her house in Plano, Dell Perry grows more than 1,600 iris varieties. Her garden is open to visitors during the bloom season, and group tours can be arranged. But call first. 800 Purcell Dr., Plano. 972-816-3418.
The elusive Tom Burseen has developed hundreds of tall bearded hybrids with unforgettable names (just from the “F’s”: Fefifofun, Ferget Dah Mustard, and Fried Bologna). He no longer offers tours, but you can write to request a catalog. 1513 Ernie Ln., Grand Prairie.
Iris Society of Dallas
The Iris Society of Dallas usually hosts rhizome sales in the spring and fall. Visit the website for details. irises-dallas.org
Bonnie’s Top Tips to Grow a Better Iris
1. “Buy locally, because they’re already acclimated to our environment. I always say if they can survive Texas, they can survive probably on Mars.”
2. “Plant around Labor Day. You need at least two to six weeks before it’s going to freeze. Our typical freeze date is mid-November. So Labor Day is a great time to plant.”
3. “Leave half of the rhizome exposed. You might look at it and think, Well, I need to plant this like I do a petunia. I need to dig a really deep hole and pack it in all the way up to the leaves. Well, you’re going to be disappointed because it’s going to rot. And don’t mulch them.”
4. “Give them room to grow. The last thing you want to do is plant irises so close to each other that they’re going to intermingle. Then when you go to dig them up, you’re like, Well, I don’t remember if that was the purple one or the yellow one. If you want an instant clump, then plant three of them about 12 to 16 inches apart in a triangle.”
5. “Fertilize twice a year. We think of Valentine’s Day and Halloween as our key dates. Just 10-10-10 broadcasted twice a year and they’re fine. We don’t want an iris that you have to pamper. You want an iris that is the most dependable perennial that we have in Texas.”
This story originally appeared in the April issue of D Magazine with the headline, “The Iris Whisperers.” Write to [email protected].
If You Missed It – The Iris Whisperers appeared on WFAA’s Good Morning Texas on April 27, 2023. Watch now!