Clumber Gardener: So much to love about heather in your garden

Chris Margrave
Chris Margrave

Heathers are sometimes considered to be the marzipan of the plant world – you either love them or hate them.

I freely admit to being a fam – they are the ultimate in low maintenance gardening.

Once established, they keep weeds at bay and need little more than removing faded flowers with shears once a year.

They are generally free of pests and diseases, have forms with brilliant golden evergreen foliage, and, in the case of the winter flowering heathers, have varieties which flower reliably in the coldest months of the year.

And it gets even better, as, unusually for heathers, these winter flowerers will even tolerate a slightly alkaline soil.

There are two main groups.

The species which has given rise to about 80 varieties with flowers ranging in colour from deep purple to mauves, pinks and white is Erica Carnea, a native of the Alps of central Europe.

These form spreading, quick growing evergreen shrubs and flowering between January and late March regardless of how severe the weather is.

Amongst the best reds are Myretoun Ruby, which combines deep red flowers and rich green foliage, and Challenger with magenta and crimson flowers and dark foliage.

Isabell is widely regarded as one of the best whites, its flowers are set off by bright green foliage, whilst the white flowers of Golden Starlet are produced against lime-green foliage which turns gold in the summer.

The second group belong to the hybrid Erica X Darleyensis, which has Erica Carnea as one of its parents and the Irish or Mediterranean heath as the other.

They grow taller than the carpeting forms of the first group.

Kramer’s Red is outstanding, combining dark bronze green foliage with deep magenta flowers.

Silberschmelze is an excellent white with dark green foliage and sweetly scented blooms.

Heathers need a free-draining acid soil and full sun to flower at their best, this will also bring out the best foliage colour.

If you are unsure about what soil you have, its acidity level can be checked with a soil testing kit available from garden centres.

Prepare soil by cultivating and removing perennial weeds.

Plant, according to variety, about 45cm apart.

Annual maintenance then consists of removing faded flowers with shears to the base of each flowering shoot.

Heathers are best planted in groups of at least five per variety to produce blocks of colour.

Probably one of the reasons people don’t favour them is that heathers are not team players and associate best with their own kind.

Effective combinations can also be had with low growing ornamental grasses, other acid lovers such as dwarf rhododendrons and azaleas, and, the classic pairing – with dwarf and low growing conifers.

This will produce the ultimate low maintenance planting.

If you like winter containers, Kramer’s Red and a blue-grey conifer such as chamaecyparis Boulevard look well together.

The Heather Society has lots of useful information about choosing and growing heathers at www.heathersociety.org

We are now into February and if the soil isn’t waterlogged or frozen, continue preparing for new plantings by digging and adding organic matter such as manure, leaf mould or home-made compost.

Bare root trees, fruit trees, ornamental shrubs and hedging plants are usually cheaper to buy than container-grown plants and can be planted into prepared ground.

It is worth growing a few early potatoes such as Maris Bard or Duke of York to lift as new potatoes in June.

Tubers are on sale now and are best chitted to produce early crops.

This process involves placing them in seed trays in good light in a frost-free place to encourage tubers to produce short green shoots before they are planted out.

Provided the weather isn’t too frosty, begin pruning bush and tree forms of apples and pears, shrub, hybrid tea, floribunda and climbing roses.

If you think your garden is lacking interest at this time of year, consider planting winter – and early spring – flowering shrubs such as viburnums, daphnes, Christmas box and winter honeysuckles.

February is usually one of the coldest months of the year.

Check that any protection – bubble pack, cloches, fleece – put around plants and containers is still in place.

Check stored tubers and corms, such as dahlias, gladioli, cannas and begonias, for signs of rotting.