Saturday 16 December 2017

Purple reign

Beds of heather will bring a rich tapestry of winter colour, says Marie Staunton

Marie Staunton

Towards the end of summer the Dublin mountains have taken on their coat of dusky heathers. No wonder fabric designers, inspired by their surroundings, weaved these wonderful colours into their reams of tweed.

Subtle flecks of purples, pinks and burnt oranges can still be seen today in Irish-made fabrics and it shouldn't really come as a surprise that we are drawn to these gorgeous, subtle colours.

Heathers can be beautiful at any time of the year and, planted en masse, they become a rich tapestry of ever-changing colour, to inspire even the most reluctant of gardeners.

They really do require very little care, except for a short back and sides after flowering is finished. Even though the past two winters were particularly bad, the spring-flowering heathers flowered better than ever, so the bitter cold did them no harm at all. Most garden centres sell two types of heather; one is Calluna and the other is Erica.

Some prefer acid soil, but Erica carnea will do well in most soil types and they are also the winter-flowering variety, which is why I mention them in particular.

Heathers look particularly well flanked by the odd conifer or three, and this is usually how they will be laid out in big gardens. So, when planning to introduce them into your garden, consider a small conifer, such as Juniperus chinensis 'Stricta'.

It is a lovely conifer -- only growing to around 1.5m -- with the softest blue-green leaves. Or the Picea 'Daisy's White', a slow-growing conifer with white tips fading to blue-green. Reaching a height of 1m in 10 years, they give a bit of height to your heather bed and like a nice sunny spot, where their colour can be shown off to great effect.

In autumn, the nurseries and garden centres will be full to the brim with lots of lovely varieties for you to choose from.

When making your choice, just be careful that your soil type suits their requirements. Calluna heather requires an acid soil and will not do well in lime, so you can either create an acid bed by digging down to 45cm, taking out all the soil and replacing it with ericaceous compost, or go with the flow and put in the Erica carnea instead. I will usually go with the plants that like what I have to offer in the soil department, rather than giving myself a lot of extra work.

If you are only putting in a few, then choose them according to flowering times. That way you will get a nice, long flowering season, and even during winter there will be something nice to look at.

Heathers are quite easy to propagate, so if you have a glasshouse, take a few cuttings around mid-summer from the non-flowering side shoots.

Heel cuttings are best, which simply means taking a little sliver of bark with the cutting, tearing it away from the mother plant, rather than cutting it away.

You will need to strip away the bottom leaves and insert the 6cm cutting into a mixture of one part peat or peat alternative to one part horticultural sand, then water in and pinch out the growing tip at the top.

Put the pot into a clear plastic bag and, making sure that none of the cuttings are hitting the sides of the plastic, blow a bit of air into the bag and secure it underneath. They should root before autumn. Then, just pot them up in spring.

You could plant them out at that stage, but I would be inclined to grow them on for another year, until they are sizeable plants. Then, plant them out during the following year.

I'm looking out the window at the moment at a tree that was in full leaf two weeks ago and now it is completely naked. How quickly autumn has roared in, but with it brings the benefit of the fallen leaves, which, if stored in a large bag or two, will break down over time and add to the fertility of soil.

So, you see, there are reasons for everything and currants for buns.

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