Success With Heathers
The singular species, Calluna vulgaris, inhabits large portions of Europe and northern Africa, from Siberia to Morocco, in vast tracts of open land and hillsides. The predominant flower color is purple...but it sports out in pink, red, and white. For well over 100 years, avid plants men have made over 500 selections of form, bloom, and foliage variations, and some of them are real eye-poppers!
Now, if you are one of those people that think that they always look so ratty, I am about to show you the error of your ways. Site selection is probably the most important factor. These are ericaceous plants...in the same family as rhododendrons...and like them, we should take our lessons from Mother Nature. Full sun is an absolute must and some slope to the ground is very beneficial. Soil should drain well, but retain some moisture, especially in summer during bloom time, anywhere from July to November depending on cultivars. An acid, humus-rich soil with no manures or strong fertilizers is necessary...a lean media keeps the growth compact. If you cannot engineer even a bit of a slope, then be sure that the soil is deep and loose. And then...prepare to PRUNE!
Ok, ok, and ok! I know no busy band of elves prunes on the moors, but truth be told, if you took aside only one or two of those million of plants, they probably would be ratty...but there's safety in numbers and distance. We do not have that advantage in our gardens...so get out the hedge clippers. March is a good time to do this...trim just to the bottom of last year's flower spikes to make a somewhat mounded shape. Now, was that so hard? Once a year is all it takes, and a spring pruning still lets you enjoy all that wonderful winter foliage on the colored forms.
Choosing varieties for your garden will be by personal preference. With that many to pick from, it is like roses or rhodos...grow the ones you like to look at. I can only give guidelines of the forms that are available. The flowers can be single or double on long or short spikes. I have taken full open spikes of 'Peter Sparkes' and 'H.E. Beale' and hung them to dry, and they make wonderful bouquets...unfortunately, not too durable...but so easy you can do new ones every year. Colors range from white and pale pink to bright pink, crimson, and purple. There are varieties like 'Marleen' that seem to bloom forever since the blossoms don't ever actually open, just show outer color.
The foliage on some is so spectacular that even if they didn't bloom, no one would notice. Red-gold ones like 'Firefly', 'Blazeaway', 'Boskoop', and 'Sir John Charrington' are bright all year round. Silver ones like 'Jan Dekker', 'Silver Knight', and 'Grey Carpet' will gleam against dark backgrounds. Some like 'Spring Torch' and 'Spring Cream', have colored foliage on new growth only...almost like an early bloom...and then the proper flowers come later. Very dwarf ones can be used in troughs or rockeries, as 'Foxii Nana', 'Dainty Bess', 'Humpty Dumpty' and 'J. H. Hamilton'.
The list is endless...but this should give you an idea of the lovely ones there are to choose from. Visit gardens and plant centers in summer when they are in bloom. I only wish I had more room in my garden to have an entire bank devoted to them...in drifts of all year color.