FOR COLORFUL FOLIAGE and flowers throughout the year, look no further than heaths and heathers. What’s more, these long-lived plants are low-maintenance, drought-tolerant and weed-suppressing garden workhorses. “Everything about these plants is win-win,” says garden designer Stacie Crooks.
Crooks is masterful with heaths and heathers; she’s known for creating dramatic garden compositions that please the eye in every season. “It’s no secret that I love heathers. All heathers,” she says. “The trick is to do your homework and read the nursery tag when you’re buying plants.”
Generally speaking, heathers (Calluna sp.) bloom in summer, and heaths (Erica sp.) bloom in winter. But there’s more to these plants than their little bell-shaped blossoms that range from white to deep pink, purple and magenta. Colorful foliage carries the show for months of additional interest.
Here are a few of Crooks’ garden-proven favorites for the Pacific Northwest:
• Erica ‘Springwood Pink’ blooms from January until May, with brilliant pink flowers. Low growth (6 by 24 inches) makes this a good choice for edging paths and driveways.
• Erica x darleyensis ‘Mary Helen’ blooms February through April, with lavender flowers on medium plants (12 by 24 inches). Striking bronze foliage accentuates blooms in winter, then shifts to golden yellow in summer; it’s a good companion for ‘Springwood Pink’.
• Calluna vulgaris ‘Firefly’ blooms in late summer, with purple-pink flowers atop chartreuse foliage that turns brick-red in winter. Substantial growth (24 by 24 to 36 inches) makes ‘Firefly’ a showstopper.
• Calluna vulgaris ‘Spring Torch’ blooms in late summer, with lavender flowers on medium plants (12 to 18 inches tall, and as wide). But the real attraction is when the tips of spring growth emerge in fiery shades of pink and red on the light-green foliage.
• Calluna vulgaris ‘Winter Chocolate’ is a compact grower (8 by 12 inches), with lavender flowers in summer on colorful green and orange foliage that turns a dramatic maroon in winter. But that’s not all: Spring growth emerges salmon and cream for multiseason impact.
• Calluna vulgaris ‘Silver Knight’ offers a more subtle effect, with soft lavender blooms July through September atop woolly silver foliage that deepens in winter to a frosty purple-gray on medium plants (18 by 24 inches).
Once you’ve made your selections, Crooks advises planting in multiples for a carpet effect and good weed-suppressing coverage. She also stresses the importance of factoring in mature sizing when spacing plants in the garden to avoid crowding; that’s the homework part.
When designing, Crooks combines evergreen dwarf rhododendron; Hinoki cypress; and herbaceous perennials like Bergenia, Nepeta ‘Walkers Low’ and Geranium ‘Rozanne’ for a changing display that shifts with the seasons.
Fall is the ideal planting season, as cooler temperatures and rain help developing root systems get established. Heathers require full sun, good drainage and acid soil conditions, similar to what you’d provide for rhododendrons and azaleas. As for follow-up maintenance, Crooks recommends an annual “touch,” lightly shearing plants to remove faded blossoms and encourage branching growth. Many varieties don’t even need that.