Well-adapted to Sequim’s climate and soils, heather can be used to provide color in every season of the year. Photo by Sandy Cortez

Well-adapted to Sequim’s climate and soils, heather can be used to provide color in every season of the year. Photo by Sandy Cortez

Get It Growing: Colorful heather for all seasons

If you missed planting heather this spring, it’s not too late. Late September through November is the perfect time, with the rainy season approaching to help out.

Plants of the heather family (Ericaceae) represent one of the most useful components of gardens in the Pacific Northwest. Not only are they evergreen and supremely adapted to our climate and soils but they can also be used to provide color in every season of the year.

While most of the plants in this family are regarded as heathers, there are two major subgroups: the true heathers, genus Calluna and the heaths, genus Erica. While very similar and often confused, each subgroup has its own botanical characteristics.

Heathers, native to northwestern Europe, are typically taller and spread sideways at a slower rate than the heaths which are typically lower but faster growing. Generally, heathers are more cold tolerant than heaths and will usually bloom from summer into late fall, sometimes twice.

Heathers occur in nature from as far south as South Africa and north to Alaska, including Ireland, Spain and mainland Europe. Heaths consist of over 700 species and even more varieties; some growing 10-20 feet tall are called “tree heathers” because of their size. Heaths have a wider range of colors and are more likely available as a winter bloomer.

These plants are best cultivated in peaty, acid soils but will tolerate all soils except those with high lime. In nature they exist in conjunction with mycorrhizal fungi which help them extract required nutrients from poor soils. The best planting times are March through May and then late September through late November.

Young plants should be planted with the foliage almost touching the soil surface but mulch should be drawn back from the main stem.

Watering is essential during spring and throughout dry spells, especially in the first year after planting. Staking or supports are generally not required for most cultivars. Plants should be spaced 12-18 inches apart in groups, if possible, to allow for spreading and filling out in the flower beds.

Propagation can be achieved by layering larger plants, natural layering of prostrate forms, or by making starts using young shoots that have a little heel of old wood at the base. Dip the bases in rooting hormone and place in well-draining potting mix (two parts sand to one part peat).

Are you sold on heath and heather, and ready to plant? Let’s assume you want a bed of 18 plants! It’s good to plant in groups of three, so you will need to choose six varieties. See the table below for some suggestions. Don’t forget to leave adequate spacing, about as far apart as the plant’s width at maturity.

Now, sit back and watch. These plants are very low maintenance, wanting very little fertilizer and only needing a slight yearly haircut after flowering to remove spent flower heads.

Bob Cain and Susan Kalmar are Clallam County WSU Master Gardeners.

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