Heathers are native to the Baltic countries, Scotland, Germany, Poland, Russia and Belarus, where they can be found growing in pine forests, dry birch woods or wastelands. They grow a mere 1.5-2 cm a year, and live for 30 years. Garden forms of heathers are faster-growing, so leave enough space for their expansion when planting – miniature heathers are best planted at 20cm intervals, while taller ones need to be spaced at 30-50 cm.
Currently, there are more than 500 heather varieties with light to dark green, silver, yellow, grey or purple leaves, and flowers, which are as colourful, often frilly and fully double. Their flowering extends from July to November. Frilly flowers resemble tiny roses, and carry on blooming for a very long time – up to 10 or 12 weeks. The flowers may turn brown but they still remain on the plants over winter, keeping the planting ornamental all year-round.
Heathers look particularly good grown in groups among stones, in alpine gardens, but they are at their best planted alongside ericas and conifers. They are melliferous, so insects swarm around them all the time – bees, bumble bees, various flies and butterflies. These are sun-loving plants, which dislike neighbourhood of more vigorous plants. Avoid planting them under trees and even next to the trees, unless the trees are small-leaved or sparse-crowned, and do not cast heavy shade.
Colorful groupings of heathers attract attention, looking like colorful islands in flowerbeds. They associate well with low-growing carpeting plants: pinks, thymes, fescues, Chinese astilbes. Compact or matt-forming conifers and deciduous trees (mountain pines, dwarf forms of Norway spruce, creeping junipers and cotoneasters) and rhododendrons make perfect partners as well. By the way, species pinks, thymes, fescues and junipers make the best of neighbors to heathers in the groves of Dzukija (south region of Lithuania with beautiful pine woods), where they enjoy the same growing conditions. Heathers can also be paired with taller plants, such as yarrow, sages and asters.
Ornamental heathers are often confused with ericas. They both belong to the same family of ericaceous plants, but heathers normally flower in the second half of summer and autumn, while ericas bloom in spring. The most widely planted ericaceous plants in Lithuania are various cultivars of spring, cross-leaved, grey and tree heaths with pink, red, lilac or white flowers. Cross-leaved ericas and several other species flower in autumn just like heathers.
Heathers and heaths prefer slightly acidic (pH less than 6.5), poor soils. Mycorrhizal association with soil-born fungi is essential to these plants: they receive water enriched with mineral salts, while fungi benefit from the organic matter synthesized by the green leaves. If there the relevant fungi are absent from the soil, heather will perform poorly. They are best planted in a mixture of acidic peat, compost and sand from pine wood.
Anyway i didn`t make any special conditions for heathers, only mulched with minced pine bark. And they are growing well. They are planted with the conifers.
Spring heaths can be grown in neutral planting soil made of compost, sand and neutral peat. When grown on heavy clay soils, heaths grow poorly, unless the planting site is improved with an addition of sand and compost.
It is advisable to mulch ericaceous plants, since in their natural habitats they grow under a thick layer of leaves, bark chips, twigs and conifer needles. Mulch helps by preserving moisture and warmth, therefore plants get sufficient moisture even in very dry summer. This also helps plants to overwinter and prevents from being overtaken by weeds. Mulch heathers with a 3-5 cm layer of spruce and pine needles, soaked pine bark chips, or wood shavings.
Trim plants in autumn, removing spent, diseased or dry twigs, so that they would flower next year even more spectacularly. Newly planted plants are best left undisturbed.
© Giedra Bartas, 2010