May 25, 2013

Heather Tapestry

What do you do with a dry bare slope at the edge of the woods with a soil ph of 5.0? Not much will grow in such acidic ground.

Here is the slope at my friend's house. A beautiful bowl pond is at the top, and the land dips down from there to where the huge stump of an old oak tree marks the final drop off.

From the side, you see that large rocks hold the edge, and the slope is at first gentle.

But then it drops steeply, as you see from below looking back up the slope.

One plant that thrives in this kind of acidic, lean soil is Calluna vulgaris, or heather, and so the garden designer here has decided to blanket this steep strip of woodland edge with a tapestry of different colored heathers.

She has done several things right to create her heather garden.

First -- she tested the soil. It really is 5.0, unusually acidic even for New England. Too many of us just guess what kind of conditions we have and then write Garden Oops posts about losing plants that didn't have the right environment. Test your soil.

Second -- she went to Heaths and Heathers online to order the needed plants. They are a specialty nursery in Washington with a huge selection of heathers, and they provide really extensive education about how to grow them in different climates. Learn from experts if you're just starting out.
Heaths and Heathers nursery in Shelton, WA

Third -- she measured the space. Then she planned it on paper, arranging the colors in blocks, and figuring out how many she needed in what colors for the look she wanted. I would have eyeballed the area, ordered a dozen plants and then found that was too few. She ordered 35.

Heather has both beautiful jewel-like flowers and colorful foliage that changes from summer greens to fiery red or gold on some cultivars. In our winters the foliage can suffer from exposure if not covered by snow (some cover the plants with cut pine boughs) but the brightest colors intensify with a lot of winter sun.

(Thumbnails from Heaths and Heathers catalog. These are a few of the selections my friend will be planting)

Her area is well protected between the house and the woods, but I am sure she will experiment with the best way to winter her heathers. She'll need to cut back some of the branches that are shading part of the area now.


To get the rounded, dense look that will fill out a tapestry of heathers, they need to be sheared each year. Otherwise they get open and woody. But it is easily done with a pair of scissors, like giving a haircut, and it's very satisfying work.


The reason I know something about growing this plant is that I also created a heather garden years ago, but did not have the quick draining lean soil or enough acidity to make them happy. They want absolutely no nitrogen, (fertilizer will guarantee death, so don't try to acidify the soil for them with Miracid) and they need quite a bit of water, but it must drain really well. I had relatively heavy, neutral ph garden soil and it stayed clumpy damp in winter. My heather garden is gone now.

But I do grow a lovely related plant, a heath, in regular garden soil. It is Erica darlyensis 'Ghost Hills', which I thought would have ghostly white flowers or perhaps silvery foliage, but it is hot pink in bloom and has very dark green fine foliage.

This is my one success growing heaths or heathers. For a real tapestry of beautiful mounded heathers I'll head over to my friend's garden to see what very careful siting with high acidity, sharp drainage and a designer's talented eye can produce.

I'm hoping to post shots of how hers develops after the slope is planted and fills in.
 

26 comments:

  1. I'm looking forward to future posts as your friend's heather tapestry develops. Although I live in Washington, where we have really acidic soil, and where I've seen some wonderful examples of the kind of tapestry your friend is trying to establish, I myself have had little luck getting heather to thrive. I've lost several. I too have one single shrub that has not yet died.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Alison, the northwest does seem to be the perfect place to grow heathers, and the specialty nursery is out in WA. But if you don't give them exactly the conditions they need they just won't cooperate, as you (and I) found out.

      Delete
  2. Laurrie,
    I love heather, it's nice to see vases, full of them in the streets, parks. I tried to grow pink heather in my garden, where the soil is perfect for these whimsical plants. It died very soon. I've read they need some fungus bacterias in a soil to grow.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nadezda, I wonder about the need for a special fungus or bacteria -- I will have to do some research on that.

      Delete
  3. The heathers are beautiful. Not something that would grow in my area with its alkaline soils though. But it's so tempting, maybe I'll plant just one container with it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jason, I put the last of my heathers into containers after the garden failed, and they are lovely grown that way.

      Delete
  4. Your friend is quite the daredevil, buying 35 heather plants when they are so picky about conditions. I fantasize about a heather hill like the one in the White Flower Farm catalogue, but instead I have an ivy hill. Oh well. It's what grows here!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sarah, I do think my friend did all the right research to grow these heathers, so I'm hoping her big investment in them pays off! I think it will, she has the perfect spot for them.

      Delete
  5. I love heather...it reminds me of one of my favorite old movies...Wuthering Heights. I can't wait to see your friend's slope once everything is planted and blooming!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Christy, when we were in Scotland we saw the wild heathers all over, and they were nothing like the pretty cultivars we can grow! But heather really is evocative of moors and mists and highland accents : )

      Delete
  6. Although I've never tried to grow Heather I suspect admiring them in someone else's garden will be my best bet. Like Lavender, I just assume it isn't something that will grow here so I've never even bothered to investigate. My soil has never been tested but Rhodies and Azaleas tend to struggle so I'm guessing it's not particularly acidic. I bet your friend's space will be fabulous and unusual when completed. Can't wait to see.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sue, I have the same problem here with rhodies and azaleas, and when I did test my soil, it is just below neutral, so not good for the real acid lovers. Despite that, I do grow blueberries and a sourwood tree. But the heathers are very, very particular I think.

      Delete
  7. What a cool garden! I love how well she planned it. I have rotten depth perception and would have eyeballed it, too. What a wonderful solution. :o)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tammy, it really was an inspiration to see how artistically she arranged the colors and forms and how she planned it out on paper

      Delete
  8. Her garden is going to be outstanding! I love the design already with the slope and the rocks! I have never grown Heather and learned a lot from your post. Your garden is stunning as well with all of its contrasting colors! I'm one of those who hasn't done very well in the testing my soil department....it is on my to do list!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nicole, I think her site is the enhancement the heathers need. They can be grown together into a nice tapestry but it is the slope and the contours, and the water pond and the drop off at the end leading to a distant view that will show them off.

      Delete
  9. So much heather, so little success in my Connecticut garden. Dunno what it might do in Georgia, but I'll find out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lee, I hope to see your heather experiment flourish in your new garden. Actually, I hope to see lots of stuff and a whole new garden in the making!

      Delete
  10. I have never tackled heathers and so it was interesting to learn something about them through your post. You are so right: it pays to research a plant's requirements before you buy.
    I saw a pink flowering dogwood in the flesh on the weekend. So very, very pretty! Now I want one even more.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jennifer, you just got bit by a dogwood : )

      I hope you find a nice one, and in the same pink as the one you admired.

      Delete
  11. Goes to show you why so many plants fail, we don't do enough research. Hats off to your friend for doing all the right work to make her garden succeed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rosemary, I agree. I tend to wing it, hope a plant does well, and then when it fails I do some research to find out why. That's just backwards.

      Delete
  12. Our native soil runs 5.0 to 5.5 so almost that acidic as that of your friend's garden. At least it's good for azaleas. My grandfather lived in limestone country in Indiana but admired the dogwoods and azaleas in NC so much that he was determined to grow them. He had to add a lot of sulfur to make them happy.

    Your friend has a beautiful place to work with, and it will be even more beautiful with the addition of the heathers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sweetbay, wow, you do have very acidic soil -- that's why sourwood (sorrel) trees grow wild where you are!

      Delete
  13. Great advice, Laurrie! I, too, would have eyeballed the area and ordered too few plants:) My soil is neutral, tending toward alkaline, though I confess I've never tested it, so I've never tried heathers. I remember seeing so many of them when I visited my daughter in Oregon, and loved the look of them. Looking forward to seeing your friend's garden when completed!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rose, I love the look of a big swath of heathers too. I do hope hers is successful and I can post what it looks like soon.

      Delete

Sorry about requiring code verification -- I experimented with turning it off to make commenting easier, and I got too much spam. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and to type in silly codes. I appreciate hearing from you.