All About Heathers
What do you need to know about planting and growing heather in your garden?
Heathers are classified as low growing evergreen shrubs. Some are miniature forms growing only a few centimetres in height whilst others can attain 3-4 metres in the UK. This site can help you select the right type for your garden.
The soil type will govern the types of heather you can successfully grow and as a general and simple rule the Winter or Spring flowering varieties will grow on acid or slightly alkaline (chalky) soils whereas the Summer flowering cultivars require a lime (chalk) free acidic soil.
Winter/Spring flowering heathers are the families labelled as Erica carnea, Erica x darleyensis and Erica erigena. These types cope well with most soil types.
The Calluna vulgaris family, flowering in the Summer and late Autumn require an acid soil and a lighter soil structure whereby the plants can get their fine roots to penetrate the soil easily.
Some of the other Summer flowering heather requiring the same conditions are Erica cinerea, Erica tetralix, Erica x williamsii, Erica ciliaris, Erica x watsonii, Erica x stuartii, Erica mackaiana and Daboecia.
Erica vagans, a Summer flowering heather will tolerate heavier soils and is generally described as moderately lime tolerant.
Tree or shrub heathers are usually available in early Spring and display their long spikes of white to rich purple flowers on green or gold foliage.
How to get the best from your heather
Only a little maintenance is required to keep heather plants but the ‘little’ is quite essential to get the best results from them.
The smaller purchased heather plants are normally planted in the top few centimetres of soil and if planted in the Spring this is the soil layer that dries out very quickly in hot weather, therefore additional watering or irrigation is necessary especially in the Summer after planting. The soil can be modified by the addition of material to allow the fine roots of the heather to penetrate the soil particles easily, being of a fine texture they cannot batter their way through heavy clays soils without some help! Essentially the soil type may need to be improved in texture to aid the heather.
If in doubt about your soil type you can purchase a simple pH test kit for a little money from most garden centres but don’t forget that they look well in tubs or planters where they can be planted in an ericaceous compost.
Heavier, denser soils may need a material added to make them more friable or open in texture whilst the sandy soils would benefit from an addition of a loamy material to assist in retaining moisture and nutrients. Useful materials are bark, compost, coarse sand or grit. Whilst it is appreciated that there is a movement against the use of peat, if it has been sustainably sourced it remains an excellent material to improve the planting environment for the benefit of heather and its associated insect life.
Calculate that for each square yard/metre you will need 8/9 9cm size or 4/5 1.0 litre heather plants.
To put it very simply give the heather plants a light trim after flowering to the base of the flowering spike. This will keep them neat and bushy. In general if plants are left unpruned for a number of years they cannot be successfully cut back hard as this will leave bare woody areas. Only trim as far back as there are leaves/green foliage visible.
It is often felt that as heather grows wild on upland heathland sites that additional feeding is unnecessary. However they will perform well given a light feed once or twice during the first half of the year. This can be a light broadcast of a general purpose fertiliser over the plants and is a simple and easy method of application. A mulch of bark or even lawn mower clippings will help to retain moisture and reduce weed growth.
Where to grow them?
Heather will grow well in full sun or light shade. Whilst it will grow if planted in the shade the golden or foliage forms will lose their foliage colour and flowering will be reduced. Ideally chose a moist but free draining site and if planting on a bank remember that these sites dry out quickly. Avoid planting under trees or in wet boggy areas.
Heathers have developed a ‘niche’ these days for planting in containers and perform well as long as they are kept moist and not allowed to dry out. In the garden they can either be planted in odd numbered groups (the larger and bolder the better) or mixed as single plants to give a more natural display.