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6 June 2014

Heathers for Winter Colour

Most people can find space in their gardens for a heather or two, though what we think of as heathers are actually three different types of plant - erica, calluna and daboecia, which are easy to tell apart. There is a wide range of these plants available to the gardener,all of which generally prefer moist but free-draining acidic soil and a sunny spot.

Heathers originated from Europe, Asia and Africa, and grow in a wide range of habitats - from coastal cliffs to moors and from mountains to marshy ground. They are generally small plants, popular for their evergreen foliage and brightly coloured bell or urn-shaped flowers. Their flowers in shades of white, pink, red and purple, are long-lasting, and are followed by bronze-tinted seed heads which continue to provide interest.

The three types of heather are differentiated by their leaves - Erica has needle-like leaves, Calluna has scale-like, overlapping leaves while Daboecia has lance-shaped or elliptical leaves and much larger flowers.

Most heathers are low-growing, ranging in height from 6in to 2ft, but a type of ericas known as tree heaths can reach 20ft in height - probably not what you want for your border or rockery!

Many heathers bloom from November to March and are ideal for providing winter colour, while some have equally attractive foliage that contrasts with the flowers or changes colour as the weather turns colder.

Heathers should be planted in a position where they will be in sun for all or most of the day and, if possible, facing south. Avoid planting in dry areas or under trees. Planting a groups of 3, 5, 7 etc or more of each cultivar usually gives a better effect than planting singly, although single cultivars, chosen to contrast or complement each other, can look attractive in a small garden.

Plan on using 6-9 plants per sq. metre making allowances for other small leaved shrubs planted with the heathers. Plant them deeply with the lower foliage resting on the soil surface.

Most heathers need an acid soil with a Ph below 7.0. Prepare the soil to a depth of 30cm (1 foot). If your soil is predominantly clay, remove soil to a depth of one foot and replace it with equal amounts of garden loam and peat moss. Plant with bone meal and ericaceous compost. Alternatively you could plant in a raised bed.

To keep the weeds down and retain moisture, mulch the heather garden with a 2 layer of peat, composted bark or bark chips around the plants and the entire planting area. Push the mulch under the foliage so that it is touching the main stem of the plant.

Water plants after planting as watering is crucial to the success of newly planted heathers. They hate dry roots, so ensure that you water them in long periods without rain and regularly remove leaves that fall on them, otherwise stagnant conditions could lead to fungal infections or plants rotting at the crown.

Heathers need little pruning - just a light trim for winter-flowering varieties in April after they have finished flowering. Prune summer-flowering heathers at the same time, allowing you to enjoy their attractive seed heads over winter. This growth should also be left as it provides new shoots with protection from frost. Don't cut back too hard - just try to follow the contours of the plant, pruning to just beneath the spent flowers.

Remember to stay in the green when pruning all heather and avoid going into the brown woody area as it might not regenerate new growth.

Plant some heathers and add winter colour to your garden.
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