How to grow erica
Generally known as heaths and heathers, ericas are colourful, evergreen, hardy and easy to grow. So it’s not surprising they’re such long-standing garden favourites, used in borders, containers, rock gardens, bee-friendly plantings and winter bedding displays. Most ericas like free-draining, neutral to acidic soil and lots of sun.
- Easy-to-grow evergreen shrubs
- Long flowering period
- Most prefer neutral to acidic soil
- Bees love them
- Some have vibrant leaves – golden or with reddish tints
- Usually compact, so ideal as ground cover and in containers
- A few grow into large shrubs
All you need to know
What are ericas?
Generally known as heaths and heathers, ericas are usually small evergreen shrubs that bloom over a long period, with masses of tiny flowers in shades of purple, mauve, pink, red or white.
In gardens they’re traditionally grown as ground cover, low hedging or winter bedding, although a few, known as tree heathers, make more substantial shrubs. The leaves are tiny and needle-like, usually green but also shades of yellow or acid green, or tinged with copper or red.
Most ericas need acid to
The acidity/alkalinity of soil is measured on a pH scale, which runs from 0 to 14. Soil classed as neutral has a pH between 6.5-7.0, even though a pH below 7 is still technically acid, because the widest choice of plants grow in this range. You can easily check your soil pH with a simple testing kit, widely available in garden centres or online. Many plants thrive in neutral soil, except those than need notably acid or alkaline conditions.
How to choose ericas
There are so many excellent ericas to choose from that it can be hard to know where to start. However, as most ericas like similar growing conditions – a sunny spot in free-draining, acid to neutral soil – your choice will mainly be down to flower colour, flowering time and plant size:
- Flowers come in many shades of purple, mauve, pink, red, cream and white. You may prefer a single colour or several complementary hues, or could combine different flower and leaf colours to create a tapestry effect
- Ericas bloom at different times, depending on the species, so if you grow a selection, you could have flowers almost year round. Winter-flowering types, including Erica carnea and E. × darleyensis, add a welcome splash of colour when little else is in bloom. To find cultivars that flower at a specific time, go to RHS Find a Plant and search by flowering season
- The flowers are a rich source of nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinators, with winter-flowering cultivars being particularly valuable – look out for the RHS Plants for Pollinators logo on plant labels. You can also use RHS Find a Plant to search for ericas with our Plants for Pollinators recommendation
- Ericas are usually low-growing shrubs that form spreading carpets or compact mounds, from as little as 15cm (6in) high, although they are usually around 30cm (1ft). Most are suitable for containers as well as borders
- Some species, known as tree heathers or tree heaths, grow into large shrubs, 1.5m (5ft) or more tall, adding height and year-round structure. They work well as stand-alone specimens or informal hedges, and the flowers are a magnet for bees
- While most ericas like slightly acidic soil, a few will grow in neutral or slightly alkaline (chalky) soil, including cultivars of E. carnea
There are more than 250 Erica cultivars with an RHS Award of Garden Merit, which shows they performed well in RHS trials, so are reliable choices.
To browse photos and descriptions of ericas, go to RHS Find a Plant. You can search by flower colour, flowering time, height, soil pH, RHS Award of Garden Merit and more, to help narrow down your options.
How and what to buy
Most garden centres offer a wide range of ericas to choose from, especially in spring and autumn. Winter-flowering cultivars are available from autumn onwards for cheery, long-lasting winter bedding and container displays. They are sold in pots – usually 9cm (4in), 1 litre or occasionally 2 litre.
You can also buy ericas from online suppliers, usually in small pots or as plug plants. See our guide to buying by mail order to find out how to look after plug plants. The websites of heather specialists usually allow you to search by categories such as flower colour, flowering time and soil type.
Most erica plants, especially plug plants, are quite reasonably priced, so it’s relatively inexpensive to accumulate a large and varied collection of these colourful, compact shrubs.
Where to plant ericas
Type of soil
Most ericas need neutral to slightly acidic soil. The simplest way to assess your soil pH is to look at the plants in your local area – do rhododendrons and camellias grow well, and do hydrangeas have blue flowers? If so, your soil is probably acidic.
Alternatively, you can buy an easy-to-use test kit to find the pH of your soil – see our guide to testing your soil pH – or use the RHS Soil Analysis Service. Most ericas prefer a pH of 5.5 to 6.5, although some, such as Erica carnea and E. × darleyensis will tolerate a higher pH.
If you find that your soil is too alkaline for ericas, you can still grow them in containers, using ericaceous (acidic) compost.
Ericas also like free-draining soil, and once settled in are fairly tolerant of drought. They don't like to sit in damp or waterlogged soil, as they are prone to rotting.
- Most ericas need an open, sunny site. Some cope in light shade, but they may become straggly, or leggy, and flowering may be reduced
- Golden-leaved ericas produce the best colour in full sun – they lose their vibrant hues in shade
- As they are robust and low growing, ericas are usually happy in exposed, windy sites, including coastal gardens
- Most ericas thrive in containers – including windowboxes, patio pots and troughs – positioned in a sunny spot
There are so many cultivars to choose from that it is easy to build up quite a collection.
When to plant ericas
- Ericas are best planted in spring
- If planting in summer or autumn, be sure to water them regularly until the roots have spread out into the soil
How to plant ericas
Ericas are very quick and simple to plant, as they are small and easy to handle. See our guides to planting shrubs below.
With ericas in particular:
- Dig plenty of organic matter into the soil before planting
- Plant at the same depth they were in their pot
RHS guide to planting shrubs
RHS video guide to planting shrubs
Ericas grow well in containers, either permanently or as temporary winter bedding. Most need acidic (ericaceous) compost, which is widely available in garden centres.
As hedges and edges
- Newly planted ericas should be watered generously to settle the soil around the roots
- Continue watering regularly during dry spells for the first year or two after planting, until the roots have spread out into the soil
- Once established, ericas are reasonably drought tolerant
- Ericas growing in containers need regular watering on an ongoing basis, as the small amount of compost dries out quickly, especially in summer. But don’t leave them standing in water, as the roots are prone to rotting
Water: collecting, storing and re-using
RHS video guide to watering efficiently
Ericas do not generally need feeding, but if the leaves start to turn yellow (known as chlorosis), apply an ericaceous feed during the growing season.
Plants in containers can be fed annually with an ericaceous feed. See our guide to looking after plants in containers.
Ericas just need a light annual trim after flowering, to keep them compact and bushy.
- Using shears, trim the whole plant lightly when the flowers have finished
- Alternatively, with small plants, remove the faded flowering stems individually with snips or secateurs
- Ericas do not regenerate well from old wood, so take care not to cut back too hard into woody stems
- With tree heathers and tree heaths, just trim to shape annually, or if they become woody and miss-shapen, cut back hard to regenerate
Ericas can be propagated by layering or taking cuttings. Both methods will produce new plants that are identical to the parent plant. If you just want one or two new plants, then try layering, but if you want lots of new plants, then take cuttings.
This is best done in spring, by pinning a low-growing shoot into the soil, where it should root in a couple of months. It's easy to do and needs little aftercare. Layering is ideal if you don’t have space to look after cuttings indoors. See our guide to layering for full details.
You can also make new plants by taking semi-ripe cuttings in late summer. With ericas in particular:
- Cuttings should be about 5cm (2in) long
- Plant in free-draining compost, either individually in modules or several around the edge of a plastic pot
- Place in a heated propagator at 15–21°C (59–70°F) out of direct sun until rooted
- Pot up rooted cuttings singly, before hardening off and planting out in spring
Ericas are generally robust and trouble free, but may suffer occasionally from the following issues:
- root rot, especially in warm conditions and wet soils
- vine weevils may attack plants in containers
- rabbits and deer will graze on them if they have access to your garden
If you’re a member of the RHS, you can use our online Gardening Advice service, via MyRHS, for any gardening questions.
The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.