Winter heathers shine with the right planting strategy
Looking great at the moment because of the recent prolonged spell of mild weather, winter heathers deserve a place in any garden.
Once very popular, they were used to fill entire beds. There are relatively few plants that flower in winter and best use should be made of them. However, the winter and spring heathers were over-used.
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The beds looked great for a few months early in the year but they looked dull from late spring to the following autumn, out of flower and with shapeless foliage all summer. If the bed was in a prominent position, it really stood out for the wrong reasons.
Heathers often have been used to cover a bank, planting the whole area. This looks tired without other plants, such as small grasses and sedges, or small hebes and rockroses, to carry the show.
There are many different kinds of winter and spring heathers, some flowering in December, others beginning in January and February.
Many kinds of plants have been flowering early this year, out of season, but these heathers do it every year.
The best way to use heathers in the garden is to plant individual plants, or small groups of plants, in strategic positions where they will have most impact.
Place heathers towards the front of beds and borders, near paved areas, and at the top of low retaining walls, locations where their colour will be visible.
Individual plants, repeated if desired, can be used on a rock garden. Heathers look well with rock and can be used to soften the appearance of large rocks and can be used with gravel areas too. They are effective used in winter containers and can be planted out later.
Good varieties of winter heather include the early-flowering 'December Red' and 'King George' with deep-pink flowers.
Good spring-flowering kinds include 'Myretoun Ruby', which has pink flowers that darken to crimson. 'Vivelli' has bronze foliage and pink flowers that darken. 'Springwood White' and Springwood Pink' are low-growing, spreading and tend to get a bit bare in the middle. This happens to some varieties and a scatter of sand mixed with fine rotted compost or old potting compost helps.
Some have bronze foliage or yellow foliage and are grown for these colours, such as 'Foxhollow' which turns orange-red in winter.
Some kinds reach about knee-height and are big enough to make an impact even as a single plant and certainly as a small group. 'Kramer's Red' has bronze foliage and deep-pink flowers. 'Jenny Porter' has white flowers and cream-tipped shoots in spring. 'Silberschmelze' has white flowers, foliage tinged red in winter, and 'Darley Dale' has light pink flowers that darken.
There are taller varieties to about 50cm such as 'Irish Dusk' which flowers pink from early winter to late spring, the lovely white form, 'WT Rackliff', and 'Brightness' with purplish dark foliage in winter and pink spring flowers.
These are short forms of the Irish heath, which is a tall species.
Mostly, the winter heathers are hardy, well able to withstand harsh weather. These kinds grow well in limy soil - unlike the autumn heathers, they do not need acidic soil.
A lovely effect can be created when these heathers are associated with some spring bulbs, such as crocuses, small daffodil varieties, scillas and chionodoxas.
Associating them with grassy plants, such as brown sedges, is also very effective. They need full open sunshine to do well.