I have too often gone on about being less than enthusiastic about planting heather in gardens. As I get older I am realising that most of my dislike is simply down to not being able to grow them, having only rarely gardened on acid soil. My attitude to them has been as though they are ungrateful children, undeserving of my attention. I first planted a few in my teens, the selection planted in a low, round tub of ericaceous compost. They did OK for a few years till moss decided it liked the conditions more than the heathers and I lost interest. Even then though, I remember that I planted more ‘interesting’ heathers such as daboecias and Erica vagans than the true heather, Calluna vulgaris.
While I am happy to admit that heathers make efficient, weed-suppressing ground cover, and they can be colourful, I just think that their fuzzy outlines and lack of real character just don’t do it for me. Who knows if I will succumb and put some in the new garden. If they liked shade it is possible, but for now, any sunny spot could be filled with a dozen more worthy plants.
But, I do make an exception for winter-flowering heathers. It is this that makes me wonder if I will change my mind about their summer-flowering cousins since I do find winter-flowering heathers attractive. Is it because they look so good with white-stemmed birches in early spring, or with snowdrops and hellebores, or contrasting with the big, squeaky leaves of bergenia? Maybe it is because they are so valuable for early-flying bees and butterflies just emerging from hibernation. Or perhaps because there is more variety of form and habit, with robust E. x darleyensis and tall E. arborea, the tree heather. I fear it is because I just need a splash of colour after a miserable winter so much that I will welcome anything, just as when I lived within 5 miles of a McDonalds I rarely bothered and now that a visit is a pre-planned day out I dream of Big Macs. I think that heathers are a bit like a burger (other brands are available) – instant gratification but ultimately not that satisfying.
But there is a place for them and I have been planting some. A few weeks ago I put in some birches and here is a place where I think they are ideal. I want something low under them so that the trunks are not covered. Winter heathers, like their summery breathren, like full sun, but by planting them now, while the birch are young, they will get lots of light as they establish. Of course, it would be wise to add red-stemmed cornus, hellebores and Viburnum davidii here to make it a winter wonderland but they are for another time – I have popped in a skimmia though, as much for its scented flowers as anything.
Winter heathers can be divided into various lots. The most obvious is E. carnea, the ‘common’ winter heather. It is a low, sprawling shrub and the name refers to the pink (flesh-coloured) flowers. ‘Springwood White’ is the one everyone knows. The ends of the previous year’s shoots should be thronged with tiny white, slightly honey scented flowers at this time of year. It is curious that although they are called winter-flowering, they never used to bloom till late February or March but nowadays they can start as early as Christmas, though March is still the main month for blooming. The Mediterranean, bushy and more mounded E. erigena has been crossed with it to produce E. x darleyensis and the two make taller, shrubbier plants, up to 60cm high in most cases. In many, the foliage changes colour through the season, being greener in summer and bronzed in winter and many have yellow leaves.
None of these need acid soil and will grow on neutral or alkaline soils. They do need sun and are not, as many assume, good in shade. Think about where heathers grow naturally, on open moorland or mountains with little tree cover and you will get the idea. Without regular trimming they rapidly get straggly and messy. In theory, if this happens you can pile peat (or substitute) into the centre and a year later the bare middle will have rooted into this and you can dig up the clumps, pull them apart and plant the rooted pieces. It is probably easier to root tip cuttings in July or August. But it is wise to prune them, from an early age. Just shear them over after flowering. In the case of winter-flowering heathers this means in April or May, removing most of the previous year’s growth. This keeps the plants compact and all the growth that is then produced will mature all summer and promote good flowers in winter. In the case of summer-flowering heathers it means doing the same sort of pruning but either in autumn or, possibly better since some people like the brown dead flowers in winter, in March, just as growth is beginning. All the resultant growth will flower the same year, later in summer.