From the Desk of Ed Hume: Winter Flowering Heather

November 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM Leave a comment

It’s time to be thinking about your winter garden!  What can you use that will provide color and interest during the cloudy dark days of winter?  I think the perfect solution is heather!  The beauty of Winter flowering heather is that they not only flower at that time of year, but most flower for several months.

During the cool, dark days of late fall and early winter, the garden often tends to looks a bit drab.  Winter flowering heather can be counted on to change this situation in a very colorful way.  The wide color range of this fascinating plant family includes shades of pink, rose to red, light purple, lilac, lavender, and orchid.

USES IN THE LANDSCAPE

Winter heathers offer quite a bit of versatility too, because they grow in either spreading or upright forms.  The lower, spreading types are grown as ground covers, in rockeries, containers or for spot color in flower and shrub beds. The upright varieties, on the other hand, are best suited for borders, spot color, massing, or as container plants.  The flowers of both types are ideal for small winter arrangements.

TIME TO SELECT PLANTS

Because color varies by variety, it’s best to select them when they are in bloom. Then you can determine the flower color and select them for the desired growth habit.  Heathers are often available in a range of plant sizes.  Many garden outlets feature small plants in four inch pots, as well as larger ones in one and two gallon containers.  Some varieties of winter heather will begin flowering now, while other do not start blooming until January or later, so you may want to select ones that flower at different times during the Fall and Winter.  Since they start flowering now, this is generally when you will find the best selection of plants.

PLANTING TIPS

What I like about heather is that they are easy to grow, providing you observe a few cultural requirements.  First, they must be planted so the root-ball is level with the soil surface.  They will not tolerate being planted too deep.  Second, be careful not to pile mulch up over the root system. In fact, it is best not to mulch them at all.  Third, heather must be planted in soil that is well drained.  They will not tolerate continual wet feet.

They can be planted anytime the ground is not frozen.  As you prepare the soil for planting, mix peat moss, compost, or processed manure with your existing soil.  The addition of a little non-burning fertilizer mixed into the planting soil will encourage new root growth.  Then be sure to set the plant at ground level.  Firm the soil around the plant and water-in.

HEATHER NEEDS PRUNING

In order to keep heather looking really nice, the plants should be pruned each year immediately after they have finished flowering.  For the Winter flowering varieties, that generally means pruning in late April to mid-May.   Prune or shear just below the old spent flowers.  Pruning is essential if you want to keep the plants bushy and compact, otherwise they tend to open up in the center and look rather ragged.  The biggest advantage in pruning is that it will result in additional flowers the following year.

FERTILIZING

My experience is that heathers do not need a lot of fertilizer.  If the soil is prepared properly to begin with and the plants are kept groomed and the drainage is good, they seldom require feeding.  Poor foliage color or stunted growth would indicate the need for feeding.  So if either occur, feed heather with a rhododendron-type fertilizer.  The best time to feed them is in late Winter or late Spring.  Apply the fertilizer at the drip-line of the plant, then water-in thoroughly.

TRANSPLANTING ESTABLISHED PLANTS

Heathers have a compact, fibrous root system, so small-to-average-sized plants are quite easy to move.  Large, old, well-established plants are more of a challenge to move.  If a plant needs to be moved, the best time is during the Winter dormant season months of November through March.

STARTING NEW PLANTS

Heather can be started from cuttings or by layering outer branches in the soil.  Cuttings are taken from new, mature tip growth.  Take only two inches of the tip growth, dip the cut-end into a rooting hormone and start in a media of 50% sand and 50% peat moss.  Cuttings are best taken in July and August.

The method used to layer outer branches is to simply scrape the lower stem of an outer branch, rub a little rooting hormone on the cut, and bury that part of the branch in soil.  It should root in 3 to 6 months.

SOME OLD FAVORITES

Mediterranean Hybrids – two popular varieties are Darleyensis flowers with lilac-pink flowers, and Alba with white flowers. What I like about these two is that they flower from about early October to early May, when not much else is in flower. My wife likes to use the short-stemmed flowers in Winter arrangements.  Eventual growing height is about eighteen inches with a spreading growth habit.  My plant is about 5 feet across.

Springwood White and Springwood Pink – these are two excellent ground cover types.  As the names imply, one is pink flowering the other white.  They only grow about six to eight inches high, but eventually spread several feet in width.  They flower January to mid-April.

Vivellii – this another of my favorites because of its dark green, tinged bronze-red foliage color and deep carmine-red flowers.  A compact, slow growing plant, it reaches about eight to ten inches in height.  Flowering season is January to April.

King George – another old-timer with a nice compact growth habit.   November to late February flowers are rosy-crimson.  Growing height is about one foot high.

Ruby Glow – ruby-red flowers from January through April.  Low spreading growth habit, compact to about eight inches in height.

Needless to say, these are only a few of the Winter flowering varieties, so be sure to check with your local garden outlet to see which ones are available.  In addition, you may want to take a good look at some of the newer varieties so you can evaluate their many attributes.

For a bright spot of color in the winter garden it’s hard to beat the Winter flowering heathers.

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From the Desk of Ed Hume: November Garden Projects

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