How to grow hardy heathers
Plant a selection of heathers and you can have bee-friendly blooms in every season. These compact evergreen shrubs are great in gardens large or small, as well as containers, and offer a wide choice of foliage and flower colours – some are even scented. Particularly for cold sites and for winter colour, heathers are hard to beat.
- Easy to grow
- Different types flower in every season
- Most need acidic soil
- Some genera tolerant of alkaline soil
- Plant in spring or autumn
- Like sun or partial shade
- Great for bees
All you need to know
What are heathers?
Heathers and heaths (Calluna, Erica and Daboecia) are generally similar in appearance and growing requirements, so are here collectively referred to as heathers.
Heathers are typically small shrubs with lots of tiny bell-shaped flowers held on short upright stems. The flower spikes appear at different times on different species, right across the seasons.
Their small needle- or scale-like evergreen leaves are generally green or grey, but may turn yellow, orange, bronze or red at various times of year.
Tree heathers, as their name implies, are taller and can reach several metres. Their abundant summer flowers are a magnet for bees. Species include Erica arborea, E. lusitanica, E. × veitchii and E. australis.
Choosing the right heathers
The key consideration is your soil type – most heathers need acidic soil. Some are fine in
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.
As heathers are compact, they're ideal for small gardens and containers – it's easy to put together a colourful array in very little space. They also work well in larger areas, forming carpets of colour for maximum impact.
Heathers are great for wildlife-friendly gardens too, as the nectar-rich flowers attract a multitude of bees. Winter-flowering heathers are particularly valuable, when other sources of nectar are scarce.
Getting the right look
Heathers are versatile plants that suit a wide range of garden styles, from traditional to contemporary. Although compact in size, these plants can produce a spectacular display, due to their sheer abundance of blooms.
A mixed planting will give you a tapestry of different foliage and flower colours, or you can use a single colour for bold impact.
The choice of flower colours ranges through complementary shades of mauve, purple, pink, red and white, so they’re easy to combine together. And there are species for every season, so you can spread the colour right across the year.
The evergreen foliage can also add to the display, with different species turning various shades of orange, copper, yellow or red in different seasons.
Winter-flowering heathers are popular as bedding, planted en masse to brighten up containers and borders when little else is in flower.
Most heathers are fairly compact and great as ground cover, but tree heathers grow much taller and make striking stand-alone features or informal hedges.
How and what to buy
Heathers can be bought in garden centres and online, as small or large plants, and are available all year round. They are usually inexpensive, and sold in 9cm (3½in) pots or larger.
Where to get ideas and advice
To explore the full range of heathers, and how to create the best displays, you can:
- Visit gardens that feature lots of heathers and see which ones you like best. The RHS Gardens at Wisley and Harlow Carr both have large collections, and all the plants are labelled, so you can note down your favourites.
- Ask at local garden centres, which should offer a range of heathers that do well in your local conditions.
- Go to RHS Find a Plant – search for ‘heathers’ to browse the photographs and plant descriptions, and find out where to buy them.
- Visit a specialist nursery, in person or online.
When to plant
Heathers are best planted in spring, although some can be planted in autumn.
Winter-flowering heathers are widely available from autumn onwards, to plant as winter bedding in containers and borders.
Where to plant
You can plant heathers in containers or open ground, in free-draining soil that is rich in organic matter.
A sunny position is best and will result in more vibrant foliage colours. Heathers will also grow successfully in light shade, such as under high-canopied deciduous trees. Being robust, low-growing and hardy, they cope well in cold sites and also tolerate salty coastal locations.
Most heathers need acidic (lime-free) soil, although some will tolerate neutral to alkaline soil.
Heathers for acidic soil
These flower from late summer to autumn and include all Calluna species and Daboecia cantabrica. They need neutral to acidic growing conditions, which means a pH of 6.5 or less, ideally 5.5.
These heathers need a light sandy soil, enriched with organic matter such as leafmould, well-composted pine needles or composted pine bark. Use when planting and as a mulch to maintain soil acidity and improve soil structure.
Heathers for neutral to alkaline soil
Winter- and spring-flowering Erica carnea and E. × darleyensis and summer-flowering E. vagans will tolerate a slightly heavier soil than the acid-lovers. They will grow in an acidic or neutral to alkaline soil (pH 7 or higher) as long as there is plenty of organic matter, such as well-rotted garden compost or farmyard manure. To raise the acidity, you can add well-composted pine needles or composted pine bark.
Is your soil acidic?
Hydrangeas are a handy indicator of your soil pH - if they have blue flowers, the soil is acidic, if they're pink, your soil is alkaline or neutral.
Prepare your soil
Most heathers need acidic conditions (ideally pH 5.5 or lower), so before planting make sure your soil is suitable by testing the pH. Test kits are readily available in garden centres and online.
Alternatively, simply check nearby front gardens as you walk past to see if heathers or other acid-loving plants, such as rhododendrons and blue-flowered hydrangeas, are growing happily.
How to plant
Heathers are quick and easy to plant – see our step-by-step guide to planting shrubs.
Newly planted heathers in open ground will need regular watering for the first year. After that, they should be fairly drought tolerant and are unlikely to need additional watering.Heathers in containers can dry out quickly, so need regular watering on an ongoing basis, especially in summer.
Video guide to efficient watering
Heathers growing in acidic soil don’t generally need feeding. However, if the soil becomes too alkaline, the foliage may turn yellow. In this case, feed with an ericaceous fertiliser in late March or early April.
Newly planted heathers in containers will have enough fertiliser in the compost for a couple of months. After that, apply an ericaceous fertiliser throughout the growing season, following the instructions on the packet.
Apply an acidic mulch, such as composted pine bark, around the plants annually to maintain soil acidity. It will also deter weed germination and hold moisture in the soil.
Caring for older plants
As heathers age, they tend to become straggly, with bare legs. But they don’t regenerate well if you cut back into old wood, so it’s usually best to replace them every few years.
Tree heathers, on the other hand, respond well to hard pruning, so if they become overgrown they can be rescued.
Pruning heathers is quick and easy. After flowering, simply give them a light trim to remove the faded flower spikes. This keeps the plants neat and encourages bushiness.
Older plants that have become woody and leggy don’t usually regenerate successfully if you prune them back hard, so replacing them is usually the best option. Stilll, you can grow your own new plants from the old one by ‘dropping’ (see Propagation below).
Tree heathers need minimal pruning. In the first few years after planting, Erica arborea should be cut back by two-thirds, but from then onwards little pruning is necessary. If it gets overgrown, it can be cut back hard and should regenerate well.
The easiest way to propagate heathers by layering the lower stems in spring.
This is a great way to propagate an old plant that has developed woody stems, with all the growth at the top.
In spring, dig up the plant.
Make the original hole much deeper, so that when you stand the plant in the base, only the top third is above ground level.
Firm the soil back round the roots.
Make a 50:50 mix of grit and coir, and work it in around the stems of the heather, right up to soil level. Firm in gently. Only the shoots should now be visible.
Water the plant in well, and continue watering regularly, especially in dry weather.
In autumn, lift the whole plant. The upper shoots should have rooted.
Sever the rooted shoots from the parent plant and pot up singly or plant directly into their new permanent positions.
Discard the old plant.
Heathers grow readily from semi-ripe cuttings taken in summer:
Erica and Daboecia in July and August
Calluna in August and September
Taking semi-ripe cuttings is simple:
Remove several non-flowering sideshoots and trim to 5cm (2in) long.
Remove the lower leaves and insert into free-draining cuttings compost. Cover with a clear plastic bag to increase humidity.
Keep in a shaded position for 8-12 weeks. Transplant into individual pots once well-rooted.
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