Looking for some added color in your garden? Winter color? Then try heaths and heathers. These low-growing perennials offer intense color, interesting foliage, and flowers in the home garden. With over 500 cultivars of heather and 700 types of heath, there's plenty to choose from for your garden.
What Is the Difference Between Heath and Heather?
Most articles on heather include heath, and vice versa, including this article, because so many people mix up the two plants. They're actually two different species with separate botanical names. Heather (Calluna vulgaris) is a low-growing, spreading evergreen that produces flowers during winter, spring or summer, depending on the cultivar.
According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension, heather can grow in gardening zones 4 through 6, and with some protection from the midday summer sun, in zone 7. Heath (Erica carnea) also called spring heath prefers zones 5 through 7.
Both plants belong to the Ericaceae plant family, but botanists placed each into its own genus. When you see them in the garden center, they look identical. The growing conditions and care needs of both heath and heather are so similar that you can plant them in the same section of the garden without any trouble.
Depending on the variety, heaths and heathers grow only to be about one to two feet tall. They spread out more than grow up. As they spread, the stems will root by layering, producing new plants.
Varieties flower during different times of the year. Spring heaths often flower in the middle of winter in the south, especially in gardening zones 6 and 7. The early flowering varieties are especially useful for bees and other pollinating insects that break dormancy in the winter or early spring and need a food source when few other plants are available to them.
Flower colors vary from white to a dark mauve, almost red-looking color. The bell-shaped flowers appear on stalks of foliage in lovely clusters that give the plants an airy, watercolor look from a distance. Some varieties also change foliage color in the fall, while others retain their dark green, glossy evergreen leaves.
Growing Heaths and Heathers: What They Need to Thrive
You can add heaths and heathers to your existing garden, a rock garden, or as border plants. They will spread out, so leave adequate space between them. Check the plant label for the exact amount of space your particular variety needs.
Select an area for these plants that offers full sun. Full sun is defined as bright, direct sunlight for six or more hours per day. In gardening zone 7, afternoon shade, especially shade during summertime, helps the plants.
Don't skimp on sunshine for your heaths and heathers. The more light these plants receive, the more flowers they produce. Plants grown in full sun will also spread more easily, so if you're growing these as ground covers or border edging plants, full sun will help them fill in the area more quickly.
These plants originated in areas with moist, peat-rich acidic soils. Give them the same thing in your garden and they'll reward you with healthy, vigorous growth. Soil pH should be between 5 and 6, erring on the acidic side of the scale.
One thing to watch out for: clay soil. They hate it. If you have clay soil, add plenty of amendments before planting either heath or heather. Peat moss or a good compost dug into the soil prior to planting adds nutrients and improves soil texture.
Heaths and heathers both need plenty of water but dislike sitting in too-soggy ground all the time. Keep them well-watered, especially during the heat of summer. If your area is in the midst of a drought, make sure to mulch around your heaths and heathers and water them well to help them through dry periods.
It's simple to fertilize heath and heather: just don't do it. Really. Honestly. You don't need to fertilize these plants. In fact, the less you fuss over them, the better. If they like where you've planted them, and the soil was prepared properly prior to planting to deal with any pockets of clay or to improve drainage, you do not need to fertilize them.
Pruning should be done sparingly, if at all. Sometimes after a particularly cold winter, branches die back. These should be carefully pruned off the healthy portion of the plant. Do not over prune heaths and heathers Use hand pruners to gently prune any dead branches off in the early spring or late winter before the plant flowers.
How to Use Heath and Heather in the Landscape
Because heath and heather are evergreen, low-growing and spreading, they make excellent border plants. They are slow-growing, so you've got to be patient, but over time they will fill in the area quite nicely if they're happy with their location.
Many gardeners want some winter color in their yards, and heaths and heathers fit the bill nicely. Like a lovely evergreen shrub, they retain their foliage color during the months when few other plants offer respite from winter's browns and grays.
Some people like mass plantings of heath and heather. They're great for hillsides, where they can help with erosion control while adding much-needed color. If you'd like to add some plants, choose dwarf confiders. They need the same growing conditions as heath and heather and make good companion plants.
Lastly, these tough little plants can survive salt spray, so homeowners by the shore should feel free to add a few heaths and heathers to their gardens.
With so much going for them, heaths and heathers can find a place in many gardens in the appropriate growing zones. Spring is the time to find them at your favorite garden center or nursery.