Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
March, 2009
Regional Report

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Whether viewed from near or far, heather in full bloom is spectacular!

Growing Heaths and Heathers

Winter can be a long and dreary season around here, yet there is no time between November and June when I can't gather sprays of the bell-shaped blossoms from my winter-flowering heaths.

Heaths and heathers grow very well in our climate. They love the moisture and the mild winters. The plants grow in a mounding habit, forming thick mats of evergreen foliage. In some varieties, leaves turn golden yellow or deep bronze in winter. Heathers generally flower in midsummer, but the heaths may bloom at any time of the year, depending on variety and climatic conditions.

Heaths versus Heathers
Many gardeners confuse heaths and heathers. I've found it's easy to distinguish between them by examining the small leaves. Heathers have very short scale-like leaves that clasp the stem, giving the stem a fairly smooth texture. Heaths have longer needle-like leaves that point outward, giving the twig a spiny texture. The flowers of both are small but are borne in such profusion that the plants become a mass of color whenever they're in bloom.

Choosing Plants
When I first discovered these wonderful plants, I was smitten and acquired many, planting them all together in a single bed. I thought they'd provide a succession of blooms all year round. However, within two years the faster-growing heaths crowded out the heathers. I was also disappointed in the overall appearance of the bed. Instead of a continual display of colorful blooms, I found the random blooming of some varieties made those not in bloom look forlorn and out of place. I remedied the situation by separating the winter-blooming heaths from their summer-blooming cousins. In its own bed each type can perform without distraction.

Planting Location
Like other Ericaceae, heaths and heathers prefer an acid soil that retains moisture but is not heavy and compacted. Before planting I amend the soil with a generous supply of peat moss to help retain moisture. I also mound the bed to ensure good drainage. Although the plants look as though they might thrive under arid conditions, they definitely require regular watering during the summer months. And while they will grow in full sun, light shade provides the best growing conditions and produces the most flowers. Shearing back these shrubby perennials to just below the point where the blooms form stimulates new growth in the center and helps keep plants compact.

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