by BRIAN MINTER
November 1, 2000
Winter flowering heathers are an outstanding source of winter colour in the Pacific Northwest. The loss of all our lovely fall foliage often makes November seem far more bleak than other winter months. The fresh appearance of new heather buds, however, can really transform a dull winter garden into an attractive show place, and with a little careful planning, you can stretch that colour from September until May of the following year. There are, however, a few secrets to planting and displaying these colourful plants.
One of the finest features of Erica, or winter heather, is its ability to grow in areas where other plants have some difficulty. Certainly they perform well in good soil, but they are also ideal for rocky, gravelly areas or in sloping hillside gardens. Over the years, I have had the most success by preparing the planting hole with a 50 percent mixture of bark mulch and sand. Heathers will not tolerate heavy clay soils or wet feet, but I'm surprised at how much Shade they'll accept. Although they are sun loving plants, heathers bloom just as profusely, perhaps a little bit taller, in shady locations. One very important feature to remember is the fact that heathers have hundreds of finely textured roots. Unless you moisten the rootball thoroughly and ruffle up the root system, your heather will probably get into trouble fairly quickly. A rootbound plant has difficulty pushing its roots out into new soil unless the outer mat of solid roots has been carefully loosened. I have seen even nurserymen lose heathers when they neglect this small task while potting smaller plants into larger containers.
Winter heather is very hardy, but we have always had better luck planting them away from the coldest winter winds. Throw a bit of 'Remay' cloth or landscape fabric over your plants if we get a bitter cold spell without any protective snow covering.
Heathers can be used in many ways. They make ideal ground covers when planted at 24 inch centres. They're a good, compact summer cover that becomes a sea of colour when you need it most in the winter. They make ideal border plants and just sensational small hedges. I love to use them in containers, especially in winter colour gardens. At this time of year, heathers would certainly liven up your outdoor planters, and they would undoubtedly look much better than those unhappy annuals. No rock garden would be complete without a grouping of heather, and blocks of white heather planted among your evergreen beds would create quite a pleasing effect. However, the most impressive way to use heathers is to plant them as groupings in a bed by themselves. You may wish to mix in some summer blooming varieties as well. If you can blend a few colourful dwarf conifers, like 'Blue Star' juniper, golden 'Hinoki' cypress and 'Sungold' Thread cypress in with the heathers, you have the beginnings of a well textured planting. Ali a few carefully chosen stones and some early flowering shrubs like viburnum 'Pink Dawn', corylopsis and Chinese witch hazel, and you will have a beautiful floral bed around your home. A few spring blooming bulbs and summer annuals, blended into the bed, will make an outstanding display during the spring and summer months as well.
A wide range of heather varieties are available, but the old favourites are still the most in demand. For a good white variety, try 'Silberschmeize'. My choices for pink varieties are 'King George', 'Darleyenis' and 'Springwood Pink'. My favourite varieties are the vivid carmine flowers of 'Kramer's Red' and 'Myrtoun Ruby' which has beautiful dark winter foliage.
Most heather flowers come in Shades of white, pink and reds, but you can ali a great deal of contrast by using some of the new golden foliage varieties like 'Golden Starlet', 'Mary Helen' and ‘Balls Extra Special’. Heathers have always been one of my favourite plants, and I sincerely hope you plant some newer varieties now to create more vibrant colour in your winter garden.