Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Lawns, Ground Cover, & Wildflowers

Winter Heaths (page 2 of 3)

by Alice Knight

Erica Darleyensis

These have a long flowering period, are suitable to almost any soil, and need very little pruning to remain neat and compact. Heights range from about 8 inches to almost 2 feet. Most are neatly shaped bushes that spread from 1 to 3 feet, depending on the variety. Many varieties have pleasing pink or cream tips of new growth in spring, and some foliage is accented with bronze tones in winter. Buds form in late summer or very e fall, and some varieties begin blooming as early as September often continuing well into May. As on E. carnea, many flowers open pink and deepen to reddish purple as the season progresses.

Irish Heath

Most varieties of Irish Heath (Erica erigena) bloom in late winter or in spring. They are less hardy than the other two winter-blooming heaths and are often much taller, at least 3 feet and up to 12 feet tall. They are also more difficult to find. The branches of Irish heath tend to be woody and brittle, and will snap under heavy snow loads.

How to Grow Heaths

Because heaths have fibrous, shallow roots, so plants grow best in sandy, well-drained soil. Add peat moss or compost to improve drainage, or plant in raised beds or mounds. And as for other plants of this family, they need slightly acidic soil. If your soil is alkaline or nearly so, use fertilizers recommended for azaleas and rhododendrons, or similar acid formulations. Winter-blooming heaths can also be planted in containers but don't perform well inside the house or on a shady porch.

Plant heaths in full exposure to the sun. Plants can tolerate partial shade, but they won't bloom as well and tend to get leggy.

In most areas, early spring or early fall are best planting times. Prepare a hole at least twice as wide as the size of the rootball. Partially fill the hole with compost or topsoil. Don't plant too deep! Heaths have shallow roots and do best if planted at about the same depth as they grow in the pot. Water well after planting.

Good drainage is important. Scoring or lightly scratching the root ball in two or three places helps plants establish quickly. Established heaths are quite drought resistant, but failure to water adequately the first two seasons is the prime reason for plant loss.

Winter-blooming heaths require very little pruning. It is safest to prune, when needed, as soon as flowers fade because buds are set almost immediately for the next season. To encourage compactness and flowering, prune around the edges of the plant and very lightly over the top. Spring pruning may also be necessary to repair winter damage. Clip off broken or dead branches, and shape the plant. Heaths can take severe pruning when necessary but can be damaged if heavily pruned before hard frosts.

Winter protection is necessary where subzero temperatures are common, particularly when they occur before significant snow accumulation. If your plants will be exposed to months of severe cold, use evergreen boughs, straw, or canvas to protect them from cold or from drying winds. Avoid heavy mulches, such as leaves, which will mat and possibly injure the plant. Anti-desiccant sprays can also be applied.

A light application of acid fertilizer in spring is usually enough. A granular type that can be watered into the soil is best. Don't apply fertilizer to the foliage, and keep it at least two inches from the stem.

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