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Growing and caring for heaths and heathers

Heaths and Heathers

There is something rugged about heaths and heathers. For me, they evoke fond memories of summers spent in Scotland on the moors during much of my childhood. So you can imagine my giddiness when my neighbour gifted me with a little potted heather! I was telling my mum about this wonderful development when she suddenly informed me that my Aunite Carole had been a professional heather propagator for years. I’m like wait what? This was a thing? Needless to say, I needed to know more! This has led me to the writing of this post and if you are reading this then yay! Because it means that I am not the only one who loves heather, or maybe you saw it and were like seriously someone wrote about this? Either way, hello it’s lovely to meet you.

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So before we jump into all things heath and heather I of course had to repot my little heather plant to make it insta worth. So below you will find said beautiful photo, you may now bask in its glory. Done? Ok so let’s get down to business.

Calluna Heather

So I mentioned about spending my childhood summers in Scotland. They were spent at my Auntie Margaret’s farm. I talk more about my time there as well as show off a horsey DIY, you can find it here if you are so inclined. Just for sh*ts and giggles, I thought it would be fun to include this picture of a wee me at Auntie Margaret’s farm. You will quickly notice three things:

  1. I had a terrible bowl cut
  2. I looked like a boy
  3. Parents didn’t dress kids then like they do now. My outfit is barely saved by my AWESOME rainbow snoopy belt…the hair could not be saved by anything…
Young me and my terrible bowl cut

Before we get back to talking about heather I have to give a wee shoutout to Auntie Carole, outside of being a (secret, at least to me) heather propagator she is also an amazing artist. I loved our visits to England as it meant I got to spend time with her and talk about drawing and eat coco pops. When I was younger I did a lot of drawing and she really got me into doing pen and ink drawings. The artistic gene continued into my cousin (and her daughter) Roxie who is currently working on an amazing drawing of Bacon. You can check out her work on Instagram at @roxiewebb

Drawing of Bacon by @roxiewebb

But enough about my wonderfully talented family! We are here today to talk about heaths and heathers and that is what we will do!

What is Heather?

Heather is actually a flowering evergreen shrub that grows quite low to the ground. In science circles, it is known as Calluna vulgaris and it is part of the flower plant family of Ericaceae. The leaves of heather plants are quite tiny ranging from 2-3mm long which grows in opposite and decussate pairs. It can also sometimes have double flowers and is a summer bloomer. It is a cold-hardy plant and can survive temperatures below -20C (-10F). Below are some of the heather varieties that are available.

Calluna vulgaris

  • Alicia
  • Annemarie
  • Beoley Gold
  • Country Wicklow
  • Dark beauty
  • Dark star
  • Gold haze
  • Firefly
  • Kinlochruel
  • Silver queen
  • Sister Anne
  • Spring cream
  • Velvet fascination
  • Wickwar flame

What is heath?

Heath goes by the pretty sounding scientific name of Erica carnea and it is also part of the plant family Ericaceae. There are many more varieties of heath than there are of heathers, there are also more colour variations. The leaves of heath plants are larger (2-15mm) and they grow in whorls of 3,4 or 5 leaves. The seeds are incredibly tiny and under the right circumstances in certain species, they can survive in the soil for decades. I have noted some of the heath varieties below, though these are just three species (and some of their cultivars) out of about 850! If you want to know more about all the different species of heaths you can check them out here.

Erica carnea (Winter heath)

  • December red
  • Golden starlet
  • Ice princess
  • March seedling
  • Myretoun ruby
  • Springwood pink
  • Springwood white

Erica x darleyensis (Winter heath)

  • Alba
  • Arthur Johnson
  • Darley Dale
  • Furzey
  • Ghost hills
  • Kramer’s Rote
  • Margaret Porter
  • White perfection

Erica cinerea (Bell heather)

  • C.D. Eason
  • Pink ice
  • Velvet night

Where do heaths and heather grow naturally?

Heather is native to Europe, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and the Azores. It is an important food source for the local sheep and deer, especially during the winter months. Historically it was used to dye wool yellow and to tan leather. It was also used in conjunction with malt to make a medieval beer. It is also used in the making of heather honey which is different in texture than the honey you are most likely used to.

Heaths are primary found in South Africa, though they can also be found in Europe, the Mediterranean, Madagascar and other parts of Africa.

What hardiness zones does heather grow in?

Heather isn’t all that picky and grows well from hardiness zones 4-8. Which is perfect for me as I am in zone 5b. In case you are not sure what zone you are in all it takes is a quick internet search. If you live in Canada like me, then you can check your Candian hardiness zone here. If you are located in the USA then you can check your American hardiness zone here.

What sun exposure does heather prefer?

Heather needs at least 6 hours of sun exposure a day. Full sun is best as it helps to intensify the beautiful colours of the heather flowers. Also, if it doesn’t get enough sun you may find that your heather starts to get a bit leggy and the foliage loses its brilliant colour.

What type of soil does it need?

Heather loves acidic soil that is primarily made up of clay and loam. Drainage is also a key factor in healthy heather as it likes to be moist but in well-draining soil. Seeing as good drainage is key, if your soil has too much clay then you can try and combat this by planting your heather on a slope if you have one. It’s always good to know your soil makeup, which is easy enough with a quick soil test.

Heather does best in a soil pH that ranges from 4.5 to 5.5. If your soil is alkaline instead of acidic you can add some peat moss to help shift the pH levels.

Where should I plant heaths and heathers?

Once you have a full-sun location with some well-draining and acidic soil you are well on the way to happy heather. Just make sure that you don’t overcrowd them, I mean nobody likes that! This will help to ensure that they have enough air circulation. This will ensure your plant is happy and that you get that beautiful foliage that heather boasts. The little flowers are just so delicate and beautiful!

It is important to make sure that you dig a hole big enough for them. You will want to make sure that it is twice as wide as the root ball and about half as deep. The roots will need to be broken up. You can do this by making vertical cuts along the sides and bottom of the root ball. Thye will also benefit from some mulching.

How big do heaths and heathers get?

They are definitely wider than they are tall. They can grow 1-3′ wide and should be around 2 feet away from any other shrubs or large plants. In the height department, they are the little guys and can range from 6 inches to 2 feet tall. There are however two species of heaths that tower above the rest, Erica arborea and Erica scoparia can both grow up to 23 feet tall!

Do I need to fertilize it?

Not really. These are plants that thrive in poor soils. If you do notice that your heather is looking particularly poorly then you can, as a last resort, try and give it some fertilizer meant for plants that thrive in acidic soil such as evergreens. They can benefit from some compost every now and then. I like to make my own as it uses up food scraps and lets me control what goes into my garden. If you want to learn more about making your own compost you can check out this post.

Heather flowers

When does heather bloom?

There are primarily two categories of heather when it comes to blooming: Summer bloomers and winter bloomers. It is important to know which kind you have as the two need to be pruned at different times. As a general rule, your heather will bloom in the summer and the flowers will be present from July to September. Heath on the other hand will bloom in the winter/spring. This is an important distinction as they need to be pruned differently, more on that below.

Does heather need to be pruned?

If you have a summer-blooming heather variety then pruning is a must. You will want to do it in the early spring or in the late fall before winter hits. To do it properly you will want to clip the branch below any of the old flowers.

If you are the proud owner of a winter-blooming variety then pruning is not as crucial. These are best pruned by shearing them lightly in the spring right after they have finished blooming. Like with any pruning, using the right (and clean) tools is key. I love these Fiskars pruners and even have another pair inside to use for my hydroponic food growing ventures.

Does heather attract pollinators?

Heaths and heathers will help to attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden. On the whole it is not a very fragrant plant but this doesn’t seem to bother the pollinators that are attracted to it. What it lacks in fragrance it makes up for in varieties of colour and mass of flowers.

Does heather need a lot of watering?

In their first season after planting, heather will need to be watered once or twice a week. Making sure not to let the soil get soggy and waterlogged. After that, once they. have become firmly established they become basically drought tolerant and won’t need much water at all. You just have to do the work in the early days to help them build up strength and get established.

When is the best time to plant heaths and heathers?

As with most plants, the best time to get heaths and heathers into the soil in fall or early spring. It was a little colder than I would have liked so I am opting to keep mine inside over the winter and then pop it in the ground in the early spring. Planting either in the fall lets it get established before the winter cold hits and early spring lets it set down roots before the summer heat rears its head. I always prefer the spring as it gives the plant 3 seasons to get established before it has to face its first winter.

Why should I grow heather in my garden?

Great question and I am so happy you asked. Well, I asked for you but let’s not worry about that and answer the question. Heaths and heathers are super low maintenance, flower for about 5 months and help to attract pollinators to your garden. They are also quite happy in pots so if you don’t have a lot of room or maybe just a balcony they are a great plant to add some colour without a lot of fuss.

Do you have any heaths or heathers in your garden? Did you suffer through terrible childhood haircuts?

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