Heaths and Heathers

Calluna Vulgaris with Geranium, Spruce & Grass in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Calluna Vulgaris with Geranium, Spruce & Grass (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

While visiting a local nursery a few years ago, I spotted a group of heathers sitting all alone on a bench.  Their interesting texture and compact form instantly intrigued me, so I decided to give them another try.  You see, I had tried to grow heathers decades ago, with no success.  They were there one year and gone the next.  And with so many other options to experiment with, I gave up heather without a fight.  Here was my chance to be redeemed in the world of heathers and heaths; so far, so good-we’re on year three.

Heaths & Heathers Combined-Digging Dog Nursery-A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Heaths & Heathers Combined (Photo credit: Digging Dog Nursery)

First, what’s the difference between heaths and heathers?  Actually, they are very similar.  Calluna vulgaris, commonly known as heather, has tiny compressed feather-type leaves that range in colors from green, to grey or bronze.  Typically, heather’s tiny bell flowers appear in summer with shades of white to deep pink.  Foliage may deepen color after a frost.  Most heathers are zone 4 safe.  Heaths, also called Erica cv. or Daboecia cantabrica, have needle-type leaves from chartreuse to dark green or gold and delicate cup shaped flowers of cream to purple that display from spring to fall depending on the cultivar.  While most Erica heaths are zone 5, Irish heaths like a warmer zone 7.  All are low growing around 1′ high by 2′ wide, usually evergreen, prefer acidic soils (like rhodies and other evergreens), require moist-but well drained-soils, like a little protection from harsh winds, and thrive with good sun exposure.

Heather's Winter Color in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Heather’s Winter Color (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

If you select a cultivar with showy foliage (such as Calluna vulgaris ‘Firefly’, with copper foliage in summer that evolves to burgundy in winter, or Erica x darleyensis ‘Furzey, with gold and brick red accents) you’ll have interest through the dreariest periods of winter, with minimal maintenance.  A spring shearing annually will promote a thick, healthy form; prune in spring for colder climates and after blooming in warmer zones. When trimming, use care to stay a few inches up from the brown interior branches. If you prune down too low, you may compromise the plant.

Heather's Summer Foliage in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Heather’s Summer Foliage (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

It is often recommended to plant a series of heaths and heathers together to create a carpet effect, but I choose to mix with perennials like geranium so that I have a dramatic splash of color and a different leaf form to mingle with the delicate foliage.  Low growing evergreens are also complementary combinations, and their green color provides a fabulous contrast with the varied colors of the heath and heather.  So play around a bit, a little heather (or heath) will go a long way to boosting your garden palette this year.

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