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How to Plant a Heather Garden

When planning a garden of heather, begin by making an outline of your area first. If you're planning a border, start from the back of the bed with the taller plants and work forward; if the bed is to be viewed from all sides, begin sketching your design from the center out. If you have room, planting varieties in odd-numbered groups is most effective. Even numbers of plants often make a new garden look too balanced and unnatural. Draw circles outlining the area that the plants will fill out at maturity (about 3-5 years) growing into a weed smothering mass. Roughly figure 18" spacing when determining how many plants you will need (sq. ft. x .44 is the formula) for a large bed. Choose the taller growing varieties for the back or center of the bed and work your way to the edges, keeping in mind that the plants will grow into a solid mass of foliage leaving little bare ground exposed. Grays and dark greens absorb light; reds, gold and glossy foliage reflect. You want contrasting foliage to define each grouping, so choose a gold or other colored foliage variety, then choose a silver, gray or dark green for the next grouping. Flower color is not as important as you may think but offset the mauves with white or light pinks if the plants are to bloom at the same time. Use the winter blooming Erica's' glossy green foliage as a buffer between a lot of Calluna with colored foliage.

This may all sound a bit confusing on the printed page, but don't let it be because they are all compatible with each other. Arrange them until the placement looks right to you. You may want to plant other types of plants in the heather garden. Dwarf conifers are natural companions with interesting foliage and habit of growth. The vertical forms they achieve are welcome in the heather garden. Other companion plants are: low growing Sedum's, Iberis, Hypericum, Lavender, Sempervivum, Allium, Arabis, Artemisia, Dianthus, Nepeta, Santolina, and Thyme to name a few perennials. Compact Cotoneaster, Vaccinum, Cytisus and other leafy shrubs can also be interesting companion plants in a garden of heather.

Foundation Plantings - Use heather in a foundation planting to eliminate the straight lines and formality that is often created with more typical plants. In the Northeast, Taxus, Rhododendron and Juniper are commonly used; heather is a natural companion to these evergreens. Use them to hide bare branches at the base of shrubs, to fill voids between larger shrubs, and to bring entire plantings away from the house. A long, curving line is more natural and can be creatively designed with the different heights and foliage colors of heather. The evergreen foliage can be the finishing touch needed to bring a foundation planting together.

Perennial Beds And Borders - Gardens of perennials often lack visual interest during the winter months when the herbaceous species are dormant, waiting for spring's call of warmer temperatures. In the late summer months when many perennials are waning, many of the Callunas are flowering heaviest. The structure and foliage color of these evergreens can also be used to an advantage. The winter blooming Ericas are natural selections for winter color. Erica carnea and E. x darlyensis start forming buds in early summer, that open as early as November in shades of pink, rose or white. These long lasting flowers are colorful all winter until the first of May when many of the spring bulbs are in full bloom. The soil requirements are a bit different than those of some perennials but you may be able to provide them with a site that has a well drained soil that has not had a lot of fertilizer and manure added.

Native And Wild Gardens - Fifteen plants of Calluna vulgaris were originally planted some 80 years ago at the edge of a pine barren here on Cape Cod. Over the years, seedlings have taken a foothold in the sandy native soil and have naturalized . Little care has been given to this area that is now over 80 feet long and 30 feet wide. The natural succession that has occurred has left this area with 3-4 dominant natural cultivars which bloom in August and is spectacular. The same effect can be achieved by planting some of the taller cultivars we offer, spaced about 2' apart. Prune heavily the first 3-4 springs to obtain a broad sweep of thick foliage and heavy flowering.

Happy Gardening!

David and Alissa Dewitt are the owners of Rock Spray Nursery, the largest US grower of the hardy Heath and Heather plants. Visit their informative website at

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