Midtown Raleigh News

Progress zooms past Rocky Toad Road Iris Farm

If you look through the construction barrels and over the mound of red clay and just a little bit beyond the parked Bobcat, you catch a glimpse of spring in all its glory. Hundreds and hundreds of irises are in bloom at the Rocky Toad Road Iris Farm in North Raleigh.

It’s a beautiful sight. It’s just a little tough to get to right now.

For 17 years, Randy Ray and Robert Wilson have tended the irises on the Ray family farm, opening up the driveway and inviting gardeners to come on down and purchase the plants.

Not as many customers are making the trip down the drive while the iris farm sits in the center of the construction zone for phase two of the Falls of Neuse realignment and widening.

“Or as we like to call it, phase two of adding a lane to turn into the Rocky Toad Road Iris Farm,” Wilson says with a chuckle.

The two men have a sense of humor about the project that they can see from the iris field and the sales tent.

But they say in all these years, business has never been this slow.

The pair created new, larger signs to mark the farm and the spots where motorists can turn from the existing Falls of Neuse Road to come across two new lanes that are being paved. On a recent day, they brought the tractor up from the farm and parked it on the new road with buckets and buckets of irises as cargo to make the point that the farm is open and the flowers are ready to plant.

Mother’s Day idea

Those who maneuver the uneven pavement and take the turn onto the unfinished lanes will not be disappointed by the rows and rows of flowers.

The iris field was once Randy Ray’s mother’s vegetable garden where she also grew two rows of irises. On Mother’s Day 17 years ago, Wilson got the idea to walk up to Falls of Neuse, put out a sign and start selling the flowers.

“Randy went to get us lunch or something, and when he came back, I had 50 bucks in my hand from selling flowers,” Wilson said. “I told him we can go buy something, and he looks at me and says ‘Let’s buy more flowers!’ ”

They’ve been buying flowers ever since from suppliers in the western United States and growing them in North Raleigh. Ray is the iris expert who keeps the nearly 800 varieties growing.

“He pollinates them, and I sell them,” Wilson said.

Ray and Wilson have known each other for many years. They both worked in graphic design and have painted murals in schools and restaurants in Raleigh and Wake Forest. Both men are teaching assistants in Wake County schools. Ray works with first- and third-graders, and Wilson with kindergartners.

Easy-care perennials

They call their iris farm a hobby that’s now out of control. The plants are for sale 24 hours a day on the honor system and will be through July. The rhizomes are like seeds and can be out of the ground for days, weeks or months before they are planted.

Ray and Wilson say the irises are easy-to-care-for perennials that will multiply on their own without much work at all.

“We had one on a dirt pile on the table showing people how to plant them and left it there all winter and it budded out,” Ray said.

And one of the strongest selling features is that deer do not consider irises a tasty snack and will leave them alone to grow and flourish.

‘Little green forest’

For now, these longtime friends are making the best out of an iris season that has collided with construction season. They figure business will pick up next spring after the project’s scheduled completion.

But they see a lot of irony in one of their collaborations. In 1992, they wrote and designed a children’s book called “The Wizard and the Bumblebee.” It’s the story of a little green forest in the middle of a great big city.

“And now here we are in the little green forest, surrounded by a big city,” Wilson remarked as the pair stood under the shade tent in their iris field bursting with colorful blooms, looking out across the construction zone and the traffic going by.