Life Gardens

Monday 11 December 2017

Heather up and enjoy lush planting

These plants are hardy, but are not all the same, says Marie Staunton

Marie Staunton urges people to 'heather up'.
Marie Staunton urges people to 'heather up'.

Marie Staunton

Not all heathers are the same, in fact it's a bug bear of mine when they aren't properly labelled. Calluna heather prefers acid soil and Erica's like acid too, with the exception of Erica carnea which will manage well enough in neutral soil to slightly alkaline conditions. Calluna vulgaris is also known as Ling or "Scotch" heather, these are the true heathers, among the hardiest of them all.

Calluna grow and flower best in full sun but can tolerate partial shade. Their natural habitat is growing on the sides of mountains being grazed by sheep, so they are fairly robust plants.

Good drainage is important. This isn't a problem on the sides of a mountain, but when growing them yourselves you need to add in lots of drainage at planting time so they don't get waterlogged. If your soil is alkaline then grow them in a raised bed or a purpose-built acid bed.

Heathers, both Calluna and Erica are generally short-lived and will need replacing after 10 years or so. They flower on new wood, so pruning annually after flowering will improve flowering and generally stop them from becoming too woody.

Erica carnea, as I've mentioned, will tolerate neutral to alkaline soils; they adapt to life in these conditions but would prefer an acid soil if given a choice. They are the exception rather than the rule.

What endears me to growing heathers is their capacity to flower for such a long time and they are easy to look after.

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Marie Staunton urges people to 'heather up'.

You can propagate them handily enough from cuttings. Semi-ripe cuttings can be taken in summer to mid-autumn. You are looking to take a 10cm length of a cutting, strip the lower couple of centimetres of leaves and insert into a mix of 50pc potting compost to 50pc silica sand or perlite. Water them well but let the water drain away before popping a little plastic bag over the pot.

A propagator will help speed up the process, providing them with a bit of bottom heat, but the clear plastic bag trick works well if the cuttings are taken in the summer. Check weekly to insure the cuttings aren't drying out and water if necessary before securing the clear plastic bag back on the top of the pot. Once rooted, pot them up in ericaceous compost and grow them on until they are hardy enough to be moved outdoors permanently.

The fantastic thing about starting a garden from scratch is that you can design a small border to show off heathers to full effect. For height, use something like a Thuja Smaragd, which will add the height but will also be in keeping with the lushness of the planting.

Ask Marie

Q I want to grow some herbs as part of a mixed flower border, can you suggest a few that might look good?

A The first one that comes to mind is dill with its wonderful feathery looking foliage and tiny little yellow flowers in summer. It will reach a height of around 60cm so a good middle of the border plant.

Coriander is another favourite of mine and even if the taste isn't to your liking then the white flowers will endear this herb to you.

If you are after real height at the back of the border then fennel is your only man.

  • Email your questions to: gardening@independent.ie

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