In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
Winter-blooming heather will be a magnificent addition to your garden, if you can keep your shears in the scabbard.
Heaths and Heathers
The only time I had luck growing heather (Erica) was when I worked as a gardener at Sunset Magazine in Menlo Park. We had a small patchwork bed dedicated to these colorful evergreen shrubs, and grew them from plugs we received from a mail-order company. The growing bed must have been ideal, with acidic, fast-draining soil, partial shade, and plenty of organic compost, because I have never been able to duplicate my success, although I have tried many times.
Heaths and heathers demand ample water, all year-round, even the South African species, although they are more tolerant of infrequent drought conditions. No member of the Erica family will tolerate drying out between waterings. Mulch is a solution to this problem, but remember to keep it away from the base of the plant to avoid fungus disease.
My Personal Favorite
The Heather Society (http://www.heathersociety.org.uk) has pages and pages of information on growing these elegant plants. It seems that heaths and heathers are native to many parts of the globe. The European varieties are suited to a cool, humid climate and do well as ground covers. The South African varieties are tender to frost and are about as hardy as fuchsias.
One of the South African species, E. canaliculata, is particularly well suited to growing here in northern California, as long as you can keep it well watered. This is a tall shrub, reaching upwards of 6 feet and spreading across to 4 feet. The flowers are small and dusty rose in color, giving the plant the appearance of a pink cloud. This plant is sometimes called the Christmas heather because it is winter blooming.
My favorite thing about this particular heather is that the cut stems last for weeks, even without water. I'm afraid I butchered the one and only specimen we had at the gardens of Sunset to use in my weekly floral displays. It never seemed to recover from my frequent pruning. If you can keep your pruning shears off it, E. canaliculata makes a colorful addition to a winter garden.
Heathers are slow growing, meaning that they are long lived, providing they have ideal growing conditions. You never want to overfertilize slow-growing plants. The best way to fertilize heather is to sift organic compost around the base of the plants and dibble it into the soil. Cottonseed meal contains more than enough nitrogen and may tend to make the plants leggy, the same with liquid fish. Because heathers are acid-loving plants, you can use a fertilizer formulated for rhododendrons, azaleas, and blueberries, although in very small amounts.
As I learned the hard way, heathers do not rebound from overly ambitious pruning. Tip pruning will keep plants bushy and compact. As always, remove any dead, diseased, or injured wood. Winter bloomers should be pruned when they are finished flowering, usually in early spring. If you prune any later, you will lose your next crop of flowers. Likewise with summer-blooming heaths -- prune only when they have completed their bloom cycle.
Heathers are ideal for small gardens because they are slow growing. You don't need to leave much space between plants, so you can plant many varieties in the same area and create a patchwork quilt effect. Select a few small heathers from your local nursery and see if you don't fall in love. And remember, it's considered good fortune for a bride to carry a sprig of white heather on her wedding day!
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