- Heaths and Heathers for USDA Zones 4-6
- Heathers are very popular plants but Growing Heather in pots seems difficult because of their specific requirements and caring. But in this article everything is explained you’ll need to learn to grow heather.
- Growing heather in pots?
- Requirements and Planting
- Planting Heather
- Heather Care in Pots
- Overwintering Heathers
Heaths and Heathers for USDA Zones 4-6
(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 12, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Anyone who has visited the moorlands and highlands of Europe, especially, the British Isles, will be quite familiar with heaths and heathers, since they are a major constituent of these habitats. Heath (Erica) and heather (Calluna) are members of the Ericaceous family of plants which include such garden favourites as Rhododendron, Azalea, Mountain Laurel and Japanese Pieris. There is often confusion between heath and heather. The heaths are generally spring-blooming, flowering from March to late May. They have needle-like evergreen leaves and form mat-like growths which may reach to 30 cm. Heather, on the other hand, are summer-fall bloomers, with flowers from late July till frost. Their evergreen leaves are scale-like and the more upright bushes may reach up to 60 cm. The flower colour is the same for both; white, pink, red or purple. The foliage is mostly deep green, but colour-foliaged cultivars exist on both sides.
In my garden, they seem to thrive on a spartan diet provided by a combination of peat, sand and leaf-mould. They are confirmed acid-lovers, so you should never add lime to their growing area. Heaths and heathers are not heavy feeders; a yearly topdressing of leaf-mold usually provides their nutrient needs. Another key to success is to maintain a well-drained soil (hence the sand). Nothing kills them faster than wet, soggy soil. Due to their special soil requirements, they are best grown in a bed to themselves. That does not mean that you cannot grow them in association with other plants. Many dwarf ericaceous plants, such as dwarf Rhododendron, Pieris, Gaultheria, Andromeda and Kalmia make wonderful companion plants. Other good additions would be many ferns, several gentians and primroses.
Heaths and heathers prefer a sunny site, but one protected from cold winds. Being evergreens, they are prone to winter desiccation when exposed to cold, dry west and northwest winds. The best protection is a steady snow cover. If this is not a guarantee, then evergreen boughs placed in and around plants, will help. Their hardiness rating is zone 5-6 however, with a sheltered site, they can survive in a zone 4 area.
Not surprisingly, heaths and heathers are far more popular in Europe than in North America, and while there are relatively few cultivars available on this side of the Atlantic, in Europe, many hundreds of cultivars exist. The heaths begin flowering in February-March in southern areas and along the Pacific coast. In my area of northeast North America, late March to early April is the norm. There are several species of heath, but the hardiest and most popular are cultivars of Erica carnea (zone 5). Among the best cultivars are ‘December Red’ (deep rose-pink), ‘Vivelli’ (deep purple-pink), ‘King George’ (magenta-pink), ‘March Seedling’ (rose-purple), ‘Pirbright Rose’ (bright pink), ‘Springwood Pink’ (medium pink) and ‘Springwood White’. A few colour-foliaged cultivars exist, but perhaps the best is the bright yellow ‘Anne Sparkes’ (rose-pink). The other popular spring heath is Erica X darleyensis (zone 6). Good cultivars include ‘Darley Dale’ (pale mauve), ‘George Rendall’ (deep pink) and the golden-foliaged ‘Jack H. Brummage’ (mauve).
Also hardy in zone 6 is the Cornish heath, Erica vagans and the Dorset heath, E. ciliaris. Both of these species can bloom mostly from July until September. Another heath which can fill the gap between the spring heath and summer heathers is the cross-leaved heath, Erica tetralix. This heath has grey-green foliage and either white (the cultivar ‘Alba Mollis’) , pink (‘Pink Charm’) or reddish flowers (‘Con Underwood’). They are hardier than E. carnea (zone 4), although not as tidy, and bloom from June until September.
Other heath-heather relatives are Mountain heather (Phyllodoce species) and bell heather (Cassiope species). Both flower in May-July. They are in fact, hardier than many heaths or heathers (both hardy to zone 4), but are what plant ecologists call, snow-bed species. In their natural areas, they would be covered by snow early in the season, and remain snow-bound until late spring. This effectively protects them from cold winds and the freeze-thaw cycle. Thus in the garden, most are challenging, if not down-right impossible! Easier types are Phyllodoce glanduliflora (cream), P. empetriformis (pink), Cassiope mertensiana (white), C. lycopodioides var. major (white) and C. ‘Edinburgh’ (white). The largest flowered of the heath relatives is St. Dabeoc’s heath, Daboecia cantabrica. It is hardy in zone 5, but demands a steady snow-cover in northern areas
All the cultivars mentioned are growing in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. Here, snow-cover is not a guarantee, our freeze-thaw cycle continues from November until early May and wind is constant; not favoured conditions for heath and heathers. However, on the plus side is our mild winters and naturally acidic soils.
Do not grow heaths and heathers if you are looking for a big-bang effect. Their charm is much more subtle. Nonetheless, they are deserving of garden space in those areas fortunate enough to have a favoured climate for these moorland beauties.
Heathers are very popular plants but Growing Heather in pots seems difficult because of their specific requirements and caring. But in this article everything is explained you’ll need to learn to grow heather.
USDA Zones: 4 to 9
Propagation: cutting, layering, seeds
Bloom Color: White, pink, purple and red
Height: 4 inch to 2 feet
There are 500+ varieties of heather – low growing bushes and shrubs, they differ not only in height but in size and colors of flowers and foliage.
Buy dwarf variety of heather for planting in container.
Requirements and Planting
Plant heathers at the same depth when you had bought them from nursery or only as deep as the plant’s root ball would only be covered in soil. Heather should not be planted too deep to avoid root rot. Too shallow planting is not good as well.
Plant them in a large, wide pot, one size bigger than the previous one with good drainage holes in the bottom.
Heather has specific soil requirements to grow healthily in a pot. It likes highly acidic soil with pH level around 4.5-6. You’ll need different soil for heather, either buy ericaceous potting mix or make your own by adding half (50%) of peat moss, 20% of perlite, and 10% each of garden soil, sand and compost or farm manure.
Heather loves sun but they needs to be sheltered from strong winds. Keep your potted heather in less windy and sunny spot. However you can grow this plant in partial sun.
Heather looks best when they are planted with other flowers. You can plant it with other plants belong to the same heather family (eg. Rhododendrons and azaleas). You can also grow this with hydrangeas as both of these plants prefer acidic soil.
Heather Care in Pots
Water when top two inch layer of soil is dry. Do not let the soil dry out completely, otherwise plant will lose buds and leaves. When watering, remember not to spill water on leaves, it promotes fungal diseases.
Heather does not need much fertilizer. However, you can fertilize heather with rhododendron fertilizer. Heathers are very sensitive to over-fertilization, make sure to follow fertilizer package’s instruction to avoid over-fertilization.
Pruning is necessary and should be done in spring as it makes heather bushier and abundant flowering shrub.
Ensure that your potted heathers are adequately protected from frost. Heathers are quite sensitive to frost. Before winter these must be transplanted into a large pot and properly insulated. For this, cover the pot with polystyrene foam (also from the bottom), and mulch the plant heavily with straws. Smaller pots can be taken indoors and grown under grow light.
Ericas should be pruned also. You don’t need to go to the base of the flowers as their flowers form on needled branches. However, they do need a light hair cut to keep them bushy and to prevent them from forming a bare, woody center. Remember to stay in the green when pruning all heather. Don’t go down into the brown woody area – it might not regenerate new growth.
Remember to prune winter bloomers when finished blooming in spring. If you wait until mid summer or fall, you have cut off all of next year’s blossoms. In spring, they haven’t formed yet.
Tree heaths can have their tips pinched out when finished blooming to encourage a well branched plant.
This is the key to keeping older heather attractive. If you never plan on pruning your heaths and heathers, we recommend you don’t purchase any.
Heather must be prevented from drying out its first year while getting established. It is quite drought tolerant once established.
Article on watering heather(click on link)
Winter Damage in the East
In the Northeast, a nasty winter can cause plant damage. Some customers feel that a moderating of temperatures and then another deep cold spell can be especially damaging. Those who protect their plants fare better in many cases. Normally stem splitting happens to Erica vagans, but others can be hard hit as well. Cut them back to the ground and they often will push out a flush of new growth. Heavy snow loads will flatten and break the stems also. In some gardens, only the flowers buds are killed.
If the branch tips are bare of foliage, they were killed back by the cold and wind with no snow cover. Cut back to the live foliage. Take a wait and see attitude after pruning back, and see if plants that look dead will come back.
There are pruning videos on our Facebook page under Heaths and Heathers Nursery.