A spring of white heather brings good luck, they say. But a growing plant gives years of effortless beauty. And if that heather flowers through the winter months, you’ll have colour and cheer when it’s most needed.
Heathers were popular in the Swinging Sixties, when lazy gardeners wanted maintenance-free cover.
But heathers are more than just evergreen ground-cover. They’re pretty in containers especially low troughs or pans. And you can grow them where other plants can’t cope, along a well-trodden path-edge perhaps, or bordering where cars park.
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Our seven native species all glorious flourish in peaty or moorland conditions and flower in summer. They need acid soil. So if rhododendrons thrive in your garden, summer heathers, such as these, will also grow happily. But there are heathers for alkaline, or even chalky, soils, too. And the hardiest and best flower from mid, or late, winter through spring, to early summer.
Winter heathers have the best all-round garden value. They’re remarkably hardy and cope with a wide range of conditions. Most will even tolerate constant gloom, though sun or partial shade suits them most.
Flower colours run from pure white to deep rose purple. Some start to bloom as early as November, though most will do so from late winter to late spring. Foliage colour differs, too, and it’s worth selecting varieties for their leaves as well as flowers.
Most winter heathers are forms of Erica carnea and the cross-bred E. x darleyensis or Darley Dale Heath.
Among these, my favourite varieties, Springwood White and soft pink Loughrigg, begin to flower in late December and continue until May.
A photo posted by Sanne, estbl. since 1960. (@silversanne) on Sep 4, 2015 at 12:59am PDT
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Try Ashwood Nurseries (ashwood nurseries.com) for a good range of winter heather varieties, or Parkers (jparkers.co.uk) for bargain packs. For striking leaf colour, I planted Kramer’s Red last winter.
The needle-like leaves darken to bronze in hard weather, and have dark pink flowers.
Another, Mary Helen, has burnished gold foliage which contrasts with the bright pink blooms. Varieties such as these are brilliant for growing in ‘ungardenable’ places.
The perfect trim
Few plants are easier to manage than winter heathers. If you leave them untouched, most form low, tangled bushes.
I trim some of mine but not all in late spring or early summer. That gives them time to generate new shoots to flower again next winter.
A photo posted by Sophie Robinson (@s_robinson86) on Jan 20, 2017 at 12:09pm PST
Where I grow them as specimen plants, I hardly prune at all. It only takes a moment to snip off any proud tufts with ugly bare stems, or to trim back plants which have crept over pathways.
A mature heather is charming in full flower. My two largest both 12 years old flourish in a few inches of soil, and slump against a low stone wall.
They make a pretty feature, set off by big snowdrops. Like a great aunt, they’re handsome in age, generous to a fault, and tolerant of unforgivable neglect.
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