Colour-wise, there's often not a lot going on in winter, but the Winter-flowering Iris, or Algerian Iris, is something to lift the spirits in areas of the garden which might not otherwise produce much in the way of gardening joy.
Iris unguicularis is their proper name - pronounced Un-gwick-you-la-riss, in case you've never tried to say it out loud - and they are always found to be flourishing in the driest, dustiest, poorest soil imaginable. Their typical, and favourite, location is the base of a south-facing wall, with the worst soil to be found, and preferably with an under-layer of builders' rubble. An area that never gets any compost or manure, and very little water, is just about perfect for these tough little plants.
Why? Well, they come from the Mediterranean regions, and they like it hard. Unfortunately, they also like it hot, in the summer when they are dormant, so after a rotten summer like this one, we can't expect too much from them: but normally, they will please us with a succession of lilac-blue flowers all through the winter.
They manage this by cunningly producing buds which are resistant to frost, so even if the weather turns bad, the unopened flowers will survive perfectly well until the next milder snap, at which point they will burst into sudden life.
The down-side of these otherwise valuable winter flowers is the foliage: by now, it's looking really tatty, with dead old leaves in amongst the drooping, barely-alive ones, and all looking really rather sad and unpromising.
However, if you look closely, you'll see that the new winter leaves are just starting to shoot, so there is just about time to get out there and tidy them up. The trick is to bend the old leaves over - second photo - to reveal the pointy tips of the new leaves. Then cut just above that point, to get rid of all the old foliage. A few weeks ago, it would have been possible to cut them right down to ground level, but you know how it is: no-one likes to hack back foliage that it still quite green, and invariably this job gets put off and put off, until the new leaves are showing above the old ones, and it's too late to cut them back.
However, if you get out and check now, there is still time!
Cutting just above the new leaves - third photo - leaves you with a brutal skinhead of foliage, more brown than green. Rake through the clumps with gloved hands (I use my faithful Daisy Grubber) and pull out all the dead leaves, debris, any weeds etc, leaving nowhere for the slugs to hide.
The fourth photo shows the bed all cleaned out, more green than brown, and ready for the winter. In no time, the sharply pointed buds will be appearing, and passers-by will once more say “Coo! What lovely flowers!”.
One last point, don't worry if your clumps start to look really congested: Iris unguicularis are one of those funny plants, like Agapanthus and Nerine bowdenii, who actually flower better when they are crammed together!