Will heathers grow in shade?

I think (and hope) we are long past the days when heathers were planted by yard and rolled out across the landscape like nylon carpet in the 1970s. In Ireland at least, heathers are found in every garden centre but they are not as popular as they once were. I am sure there are lots of reasons for this. They are not really the perfect ground cover that everyone wanted, needing no work and remaining beautiful for ever. They get old and if not regularly trimmed soon become a mess. They also don’t do well in shade. Lots of people wanted ground cover to fill shady areas and to smother weeds and heathers not only struggle to compete with perennial weeds, they need as much sun as possible.

You only have to think about where they grow in the wild to understand this. They grow wild on upland bogs, often in peaty, very acid soils where little else survives. I will ignore the Cape heaths from South Africa which are generally frost-tender and a completely different (and beautiful) kettle-of-fish but the other heathers that need concern us are Mediterranean and also sun-lovers, though tolerant of dry, stony soils and, most excitingly, lime – and they bloom in winter.

So most heathers need a sunny, open spot and most need acid soils. But the winter-flowering heathers tolerate lime so can be grown in virtually all soils.

It has taken me a long time to really get enthusiastic about heathers. As a teenager I did grow summer heathers in a large pot, mainly because I was just contrary and we had chalky soil that would be a death sentence to them. They lived in a peaty mix and I soon decided that there were better things to grow in pots. But I am falling for the winter heathers. The last plants I bought in a garden centre were winter heathers. They are in bloom for months, provide colour when I really need it and the flowers are popular with bees and butterflies on warm, sunny winter days.

A planting of these heathers need not be flat and uninteresting either. Erica carnea is relatively flat and spreading while Erica erigena and E. x darleyensis is more upright and bushy. And you can add the many forms of E. arborea (below, in a pot) for vertical interest. But you don’t need to segregate heathers into their own ghetto and they can be mixed with other plants. Just avoid anything with exuberant foliage that will smother the heathers and kill them. Grasses work well but sprawlers like most hardy geraniums are probably best avoided.

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7 Comments on “Will heathers grow in shade?”

  1. Paddy Tobin
    December 20, 2022 at 8:54 am #

    Heathers and dwarf conifers were a strong fashion in the 70s into the 80s – and provided a perfect garden bed for our dog! Not a heather in the garden now!

    • thebikinggardener
      December 20, 2022 at 9:05 am #

      It is testament to how influential the trend was that we can’t mention heathers without conifers. Few plants have had such a metroric rise in popularity and fall from grace. But it is sad that if you see heathers for sale in garden centres, the chances are they will be painted! The final indignity.

      • Paddy Tobin
        December 20, 2022 at 2:14 pm #

        Judging by the inclusion of heather in a recent Gardeners’ World programme, they might be edging their way back into our gardens again.

        • thebikinggardener
          December 20, 2022 at 3:27 pm #

          Who knows? There are worse things that could happen. At least they are plants.

  2. tonytomeo
    December 20, 2022 at 3:02 pm #

    ?! I was never aware of this fad. Until the past few years, they had been very rare in home gardens here. I only remember Erica arborea because it grew wild in Montara, where it had been planted decades earlier as a cut flower commodity, and then abandoned.

    • thebikinggardener
      December 20, 2022 at 3:30 pm #

      It is strange that heathers never made it big there. But as one of their main attributes is hardiness maybe it allowed more interesting things to be planted. I always think that small-leaved hebes have a similar landscape use but can be rather unreliably hardy. they serve a similar purpose and with a bit more variation and panache.

      • tonytomeo
        December 21, 2022 at 6:59 am #

        I suspect that heathers were unpopular here because they are unhappy with the aridity. They do well in coastal regions, such as San Francisco, but not so well just a few miles inland. Not only do most people live within chaparral or even desert climates here, but most of the growers are in similar climates farther inland. Marketability is limited for something that takes a bit of extra work to grow.

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