Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
November, 2009
Regional Report

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Snow Queen and King George heaths are wonderful companions, providing cheerful winter color in a sunny bed.

Colorful Heaths and Heathers

Winter can be a long and dreary season around here, yet there is rarely a time between November and June when I can't gather sprays of the bell-shaped blossoms from my winter-flowering heaths. Mine bloom in shades of pink, rose, light purple, lilac, lavender, orchid, and white.

Heaths and heathers grow very well in our climate. They love the moisture and our 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
There always seems to be some confusion about 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 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 sad and out of place. I remedied the situation by separating the winter-blooming heaths from their summer-blooming cousins. Separated in this way, each type can perform without distraction.

Planting Location
Heaths and heathers prefer an acidic soil that retains moisture but is not heavy and compacted. Before planting I amend the soil with a generous amount of compost 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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