As soon as the temperature begins to rise to the 10C range, our native bees come out looking for pollen and nectar. I’ve noticed over the last couple of days that the winter-flowering heathers are smothered with these great pollinators.
Winter-flowering heathers are one of the best sources of winter and early spring colour. The fresh appearance of new heather buds can really transform a dull early season garden into an attractive showplace. With a little careful planning, these heathers can bloom in sequence, allowing you to stretch that colour from November until May. There are, however, a few secrets to planting and displaying these colourful winter and early spring jewels.
One of the finest features of winter heathers is their ability to grow in areas where other plants have some difficulty. They perform best in well-drained soil. Over the years, I have had the most success by preparing the planting hole with a 50 percent mixture of fine fir or hemlock bark mulch. Heathers will not tolerate heavy clay soils or wet feet, but I’m surprised at how much shade they’ll accept. Although they are sun-loving plants, heathers bloom just as profusely, perhaps a little bit taller, in shady locations.
One very important feature to remember is the fact that heathers have hundreds of finely textured roots. Unless you moisten the root ball thoroughly and ruffle up the root system, your heather will probably get into trouble quickly. A rootbound plant has difficulty pushing its roots out into new soil unless the outer mat of solid roots has been carefully ruffled and loosened.
The most impressive way to use heathers is to plant them as groupings in a bed by themselves. A new trend is planting different varieties together which is a great idea for small space gardens and containers. You may wish to mix in some summer-blooming varieties as well. If you can blend a few colourful dwarf conifers, like ‘Blue Star’ juniper, orange toned ‘Rheingold’ cedars and ‘Sungold’ thread cypress in with the heathers, you have the beginnings of a well textured planting. Add a few carefully chosen stones and some early-flowering shrubs, like viburnum ‘Pink Dawn’, corylopsis and Chinese witch hazel, and you will have created a beautiful winter-flowering floral bed around your home. A few spring-blooming bulbs and summer evergreen perennials, blended into the bed, will make an outstanding display during the spring and summer months as well.
A wide range of heather varieties are available, but the old favourites are still the most in demand. For a good white variety, try ‘White Perfection’ (sometimes called H. darleyensis ‘Alba’) and ‘Springwood White’. My choices for pink varieties are ‘Springwood Pink’, ‘Darley Dale’ and ‘March Seedling’. My favourite varieties, however, are the vivid carmine flowers of ‘Kramer’s Red’ and ‘Nathalie’ that have beautiful dark winter foliage.
Most heather flowers come in shades of white, pink and reds, but you can add a great deal of contrast by using some of the new golden foliage varieties like ‘Golden Starlet’ (white flowers), ‘Mary Helen’ (pink flowers) and ‘Eva Gold’ (dark pink flowers). Heathers have always been one of my favourite plants, and I sincerely hope you plant some newer varieties now to create more vibrant colour in your winter and early spring garden and to support our bee population.