Home & Garden

Hobby blossoms into business

A Brilliance iris in bloom.

Emil Burgard of Atascadero would often wave to the friendly mail lady with the big smile as she delivered mail to his neighborhood.

That wave and smile bloomed into marriage in 2003, and on their wedding day they purchased a five-acre lot in rural east Templeton.

They chose the lot for the sweeping view of the hills and the sunny open space for farming. Emil, a retired nurse from Atascadero State Hospital, helped build the new home near the old “climbing tree’’ oak on land that had once been part of the large Franklin Farm.

Cathy Burgard, still a mail lady, always loved iris plants, and had quite a collection of them to plant in front of their new home. She is a descendant of the Canet family of Rancho San Bernardo south of Morro Bay. Her great-great-great-grandfather was a Spanish sailor who landed in Monterey, and received a land grant of one square league, or 4,000 acres, in 1840. The family farming tradition stayed with Cathy, who was raised with animals and gardens.

It was natural that Cathy would envision an iris farm, and with early inspiration from Scott’s Iris Gardens in Atascadero and catalogues, she and Emil have expanded to more than 200 varieties and started propagating their own hybrids. Through their website, customers from all over the country order iris rhizomes. Their specialty is bearded iris—both tall bearded, over 27 inches, and border bearded, 16 to 26 inches.

“The main reasons I chose iris as my specialty are that they are drought-tolerant, very forgiving and have so many beautiful colors,” Cathy says.

Her annual calendar for iris is to plant in the fall, hybridize during blooming season through March, dig up and separate out the rhizomes in July for shipping.

She explains that the main bulb will only bloom once, and then produce new rhizomes around it. The new bulbs can be split off the “mother” bulb and planted at the surface of the soil, and the mother bulb is then discarded. This keeps the iris plants from becoming too crowded and choked, which results in fewer blooms and unattractive plants.

The process of developing a hybrid, a mix between two iris varieties, is labor-intensive and meticulous. As Cathy says, “The most exciting moment is when the new hybrid bloom opens. We wait until the second year for the best bloom, and register it after several years of blooming.” Cathy is happy to explain the entire process to visitors who may be interested in experimenting with developing their own hybrids at home.

The farm is open to the public from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, after which it will close for the season. Emil and Cathy will greet you with smiles and conversation as you view the rows of colorful iris and take in the sunshine and scenery of the El Pomar area.

Find the farm five miles east of Highway 101, Vineyard exit, at 840 Climbing Tree Lane. Their website for catalogues and ordering is BurgardIrisFarm.com.

Connie Pillsbury is a freelance writer who lives in Atascadero.

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