December 26, 2012

Heaths and Heather - The Uncommon Evergreens

Many varieties of Erica and Calluna ( Heather) bloom during  the winter,  but here in New England, it's the color and tints of the winter foliage that makes these acid loving shrubs so valuable in the landscape.

One of the greatest visual weaknesses in American gardens is winter color and texture schemes in the home landscape. We can only blame ourselves, for it is too easy to succumb to the beauty of early spring shrubs when we see them in April or May at the garden center. Just as they advise never to go shopping for groceries while hungry, we visit our local garden centers just as the snow melts - when we are at our most vulnerable, and spring shrubs are like chocolate.  Plus, with our yet-to-be-filthy minds all horned up over the forced shrubs and trees that we saw just a few weeks earlier at the local spring flower show,  even  dogwoods begin to look voluptuous.  Still, who could ever  resist a gorgeous early flowering Rhododendron mucronulatum in March, or a Daphne...any Daphne.

The winter garden belongs to the the Heath ( Erica species) and the Heather ( Calluna species). These low growing, acid loving everygreens may seem tempermental and fussy, but when planted in the proper  location ( full sun, high acid) they basically take care of them selves. In what was once my parents fine, front lawn which needed to be cut, fertilized and thatched each spring and summer, I removed the sod in an 1/8 acre and planted acid-loving shrubs, a blue stone walk and a faux, river bed complete with 3 loads of river rock and a mass planting of grasses, native shrubs and a drift of heath and heather. This is what one sees when one drive down our road, in a normal residential neighborhood where one typically sees lawns, inflatable snow men and white, vinyl fences.


Each summer vacation at the Cape, I purchase a few dozen Calluna vulgaris cultivars to add to my front heather garden.  On the left, Calluna vulgaris 'Robert Chapman' glows  against a silver variety. Each is planted in a grouping where I combine at least 15 plants, which may seem excessive, but this is the secret in getting the best effect in the garden.


All of these early spring purchases leave us with rather dull suburbia. It doesn't help that landscapers are often not as thoughtful about the plant material they choose, or the home owner doesn't value something unusual.  At risk of sounding negative, the truth is most front yard and foundation plantings consist of common shrubs, most of which look their best only in the month of May, aside from the occaisional Nikko blue hydrangea. We are left with the harsh yellow of Forsythia and the magenta of early Rhododendron species.

Yet look at the winter color one can have. Many shrubs which hold on to their needles and foliage through the winter, transform as soon as the weather becomes cold, and the display can be spectacular. Some of the finest winter colors come from the plants commonly known as Heaths and Heathers. These plants, which technically are small shrubs, have needled or evergreen foliage which remains texturally interesting both during all four seasons. I never really think of these shrubs as flowering shrubs, yet many people imagine theme only in bloom. To be honest, I never notice the floral display here in New England as the foliage is so superb, but if you look at these photos closely, you can see that many of these are in bud.

In the end, it's all about the foliage and texture, and with color like this, which may last all winter long, it can be fun to select varieties that have contrasting colors in the winter. It's not easy to always tell from a summer purchase what color your heather will change once it gets cold, but with a little research, one can get much information on-line.Go on line now.... Make a list, and check it twice ( sorry!), and then plan on what plants to get next spring or autumn. Most of the finest winter color will come from evergreens, and selecting the best ones will require a little homework, which is exactly what the doctor has ordered during these short days of winter.


L - The fuzzy silver foliage of Verbascum olypicum, the burgundy foliage of a Euphorbia 'Nothowlee' , a zone 7 plant that somehow survives in the front garden, and the winter gold of a Chamycyparis pisifera.



When combines with other plant which develop strong colors in the winter, the effect can be as powerful as a flower garden. Using my camera today, I am trying an experiment - editing what varieties and plants go well together by using Photoshop. These colors are not enhanced, but by combining some plants together on-screen, I get a different perspective. Of course, these plants look different once in the garden, with light, soil, mulch and other plants, as cropping photos can be misleading, yet if a cropped image works on screen, one has a better chance in achieving the desired effect if one plants en masse, for any plant when combined in volume, will form a pool of color in the garden - it's a simple scale thing. If you want a pool of gold and grey, side by side, you will have to plant more than one gold shrub. Seven, fifteen or thirty shrubs together will form a large pool of gold, and then fifteen or thirty burgundy foliage plants next to the gold ones, will make the effect work in the ourdoor scale where trees are seventy feet tall, and walks and other structures often extend for dozens of feet.


Calluna vulgaris 'Winter Chocolate', C. vulgaris 'Firefly'  and C. vulgaris 'Wickwar Flame'


Today I walked around the garden, taking some photos of various shrubs and trees which, for some reason, always seem much more colorful in December than they do in September. I suppose the competition is weak now, but also, I feel that the low angle of the sun enhances the winter color many evergreen shrubs develop as the temperatures drop below freezing.

I have no real plan other than a clipping from an old gardening magazine which I have kept on my office wall for a few years of a British garden with drifts of Erica and Calluna planted on raised beds. As you can see, heather and Erica's do provide some of the brightest color in the garden right now. I order plants from a few west coast nurseries each year, as they are not inexpensive, and I have a few rules. The most essential rule? Order as many of one variety as you can, for Calluna and Erica must be planted in large masses to look good.

I am fortunate to have a highly acidic soil here in central Massachusetts, so heath, heather and Erica all thrives with little help from me. I do get some winter kill, and I don't always follow my rule of buying plants in volume since often I can only afford 3 of each variety, especially when presented with a nursery which happens to have dozens of choice varieties making selecting only a few types, as challenging as a five year old trying to choose his three favorite jelly bean flavors. Each autumn, I also try to order a box full from the west coast - my favorite source? Digging Dog Nursery. But aside from my annual trip to the Cape, I sometimes like to get plants at local Botanical garden plant sales, where often, a Heath or Heather plant society has a table where members are selling their home-grown plants. This would be the best way to get plants, for you are certain to get the proper varieties hardy for your area.

Sometimes I lose the labels in my garden.  I would love to find out what this variety is, when I bought it, it was the only one at the nursery, but it had incredible foliage.
Every July, when I go to Cape Cod for our family vacation, I try to stop as local Cape Caod nurseries, as they always carry erica which makes a fine ocean side plant, and the fact that Cape Cod is in USDA zone 7 doesn't hurt either. Sometimes, my local nurseries carry plants, but I can tell that they are trucked in from the south, and not locally grown. I also resist buying the massive forced heathers one sees in full bloom during the spring at places like Home Depot and Lowes.  Buyers know that color sells, and in March and again in the autumn. one will see heather plants in full bloom at big box stores, but resist the temptation, unless you are planting these monsters as temporary plants.  If you are unsure about the hardiness of a plant you are purchasing ( and this applies to most any marginal shrub or plant) be sure to ask your nursery person where their plants came from, or better yet, if they propagate the plants themselves. With marginally hardy shrubs such as heaths and heather, this is essential knowledge, for the plants, if grown properly, will have filled their nursery container with fiberous roots which have already been wintered over ( if in a local hoop house or cold frame - that's OK), but best if planted in the autumn in the north, since spring planting may result in root balls drying out before being able to extend roots into you local soil.

Atlantic Cedar, the curved needles of 'Silberfir' and the wonderful greyish needles of Calluna vulgaris 'Silver Knight'

Other evergreens suddenly become the stars of the winter garden. Silver, blueish, grey, every tint becomes unique in the winter landscape. Dwarf evergreens often provide the best show, but it generally comes at a cost. A great cost, for the finest evergreens are either slow growing dwarfs, or propagated from brooms ( those creepy, clustery mutated plants that sometimes form on the tips of mature evergreens in the wild). My rule? You get what you pay for when it comes to evergreens, and although some prices may shock you, I can say that I have never been disappointed when investing in a $300 evergreen which may only be in a one gallon container. Each year, the visual impact adds another $100 to the display.

Shrubs and trees in the winter garden can appear in most every color in the rainbow.


A glimpse of our Holiday table with Weck canning jar terrariums, moss and birch bark. Don't forget birch trees for winter color - it's a natural display that only gets better with age.



Other plants to consider are dwarf Japanese bamboos such as this Sasa vietchii, which is green all summer, but each winter, a band of dry, papery whiteness forms on the edge of each leaf blade. It spreads, but slowly, and I can't live without it. Even my brother asked me about it as he left our house Christmas eve. We decorated only with spotlights, and he was shocked at how impressive the Sasa vietchii was when illuminated at night.

1 comment :

  1. Stunning...and masses rule! Funny, but I'm sipping a cold Sam Adams after a late day hike here in zone 7b, while reading this...and my red chile enchiladas are ready!

    Those plants are interesting in their small foliage, which resemble what we have here in alkaline-loving plants.

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