You can recreate the beauty of natural heather landscapes on a smaller scale in your garden. Heathers have the advantage of needing a minimum of care. With careful planning you can achieve a beautiful mixture of subtle shades.
Most gardeners dream of a garden that looks after itself – one that looks good all-year-round, without hard work. A well-planned heather garden comes close to that dream.
You come across heath on mountains in damp, barren landscapes and on dry plains. There are relatively few types of plant on each kind of heath.
Of the low-growing evergreen plants, Calluna and Erica dominate the heath landscape. Ling (Calluna vulgaris) thrives on poor, sandy soil often with scare supplies of nutrients and is common throughout the country. Cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix) grows wild in southern parts of the UK. It is often found growing together with various grasses. In mountainous areas, Erica species, notably E. carnea, dominate on both chalky and acid soils. Here heathers grow alongside mountain pine, juniper and yew.
Growing other plants alongside heather adds variety and charm to your planting plan. Pine and juniper both provide natural ‘companion’ vegetation. Use tall varieties only at the edge of our garden or as a background together with birch and maple.
In the heather garden you can use dwarf varieties of mountain pine (Pinus mugo) and spruce (Picea abies) to recreate the same effect.
In spring, bulbs help bring the heath to life. Snowdrops, crocus, wild varieties of tulip and narcissus emphasise the red and pink colours of Erica and Calluna. Bulbs thrive in the crumbly, humans-rich soil. You can also use grasses and perennials to liven up the garden. Blue fescue and moor grass are also suitable.
Low-growing, tuft-forming perennials such as thyme, and taller plants such as mullein, yarrow and various thistles also work well in the heather garden.
Autumn planting is Best
The best time for planting is from September to the middle of October. Beforehand, it is a good idea to investigate the properties of your soil. Heathers thrive in a well-drained, acidic soil. Soil that is too alkaline can be improved by adding leaf and bark compost. Heavy soils can be improved by adding a layer of gravel for drainage.
Plant the various species and varieties in separate groups. Allow 9-10 plants per square metre. Plant perennials and grasses in groups between the heather clumps. Stones and unusually shaped branches or roots also look effective between the plants.
Easy Care in the Long Run
Weed the garden during the first couple of years. Be careful when you do this, as the heathers’ shallow root system can be damaged by rough weeding. After three years, the individual plants will have formed a dense mat and weeds will no longer be a problem.
In spring, feed sparingly with a slow-release fertilizer, such as guano or bone meal. The only remaining care needed is an annual pruning after the heather has flowered. Sheep and other grazing animals do this job on natural heaths, but in the garden you need to cut back the heather with hand clippers or secateurs. Alpine heath prefers pruning every other year.