Heath and heather gardens provide rainbow of foliage in winter

Vibrant color and reliable blooms can be yours year-round with a heath and heather garden

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comMarch 5, 2014 

On a gentle slope halfway between Shelton and Allyn, puddles of color light up the ground like a gigantic painters palette.

The demonstration garden of specialty nursery Heaths and Heathers is made up almost entirely of its two namesake plants. Though a few are in bloom, most of the color is coming from a rainbow of foliage: red, pink, orange, yellow, green, silver, bronze and even black. Now is the time of year when those colors are most vibrant.

“There’s always something in bloom. There’s always something colorful,” said Karla Lortz, the nursery’s owner. “Heather nurseries are never boring. There is no off season.”

Lortz’s nursery, which she bought in 1995, isn’t big but it has the country’s largest variety of heaths and heathers – over 900 species and cultivars at last count.

Heaths (Genus Erica) and Heather (Genus Calluna) are both in the Ericaceae family. They are native to various parts of the world including the famous moors of England. Heathers have tiny scale-like leaves, vaguely reminiscent of cedar, while heaths have small needle-like leaves, like miniature pines. There’s even a mountain heather (Genus Phyllodoce) that grows on the lower flanks of Mount Rainier.

Heaths and heathers aren’t grown for the size of their flowers — they’re not much bigger than a grain of rice. But, as they say in retail, it’s all about the volume. In winter, several varieties of heath (mostly in white and pink) provide one of the few reliably blooming garden plants.

“Everybody notices the winter blossoms because nothing else is going on,” Lortz said. But heaths also put on flower displays in mid-summer.

But it’s their foliage, particularly of heathers, that can be eye stopping. Lortz sells more plants based on their foliage colors than their flower colors.

Heaths and heathers are go-to choices for ground covers. They are low maintenance, drought tolerant and don’t need much fertilizer.

There’s nothing stopping a gardener from planting a specimen of heath or heather, but they work best in a landscape when several (at least three) of the same variety are pooled together. And they look even better when several groupings of contrasting foliage color are played off of one another.

Planting can occur at any time of year but, as with other nursery-grown plants, it’s best to avoid the coldest days of winter and the hottest days of summer. Now is the best time to be establishing a heath and heather garden.

Choose a spot with at least half a day of sun – but preferably a full day — and with good drainage. Plants should be spaced 30 to 36 inches apart. If planting for winter foliage color, keep in mind that the spectacular color changes occur only on the side of the plant that faces the sun (south facing.)

Some cultivars of heather (Calluna vulgaris ‘Spring Torch’ and ‘Red Fred’) produce spring growth in eye-popping hot colors.

Heathers need to be pruned annually or they will get leggy, Lortz said. Heaths can be pruned every other year.

“If you don’t prune heather it just looks awful,” Lortz said, leading a visitor to a gangly plant that she keeps unsheared to make her point.

Lortz’s garden has tree heaths and coral-like mounds of dwarf heathers. She collects rare specimens from her travels around the world, including to South Africa. Once a rhododendron hybridizer, she is now completely devoted to heaths and heathers.

“You’ve got to love the plant or you wouldn’t be doing it,” Lortz said.

The Heath and Heather display garden is open only on select days and by appointment. Two of those upcoming days are on Saturday and on March 22. Saturday’s will include a pruning demonstration at 9:30 a.m.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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