Meet Heath and Heather - 27 East

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Meet Heath and Heather

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These small quart pots of heathers were seen at a local garden center in mid-October.  You may find them in the spring or in the fall. Both are excellent times for planting.
ANDREW MESSINGER

These small quart pots of heathers were seen at a local garden center in mid-October. You may find them in the spring or in the fall. Both are excellent times for planting. ANDREW MESSINGER

Hudsonia tomentosa can be found in and along the ocean dunes and along the bay dunes as well.  Not very ornamental, but they do grow in pure sand and are totally salt resistant.

Hudsonia tomentosa can be found in and along the ocean dunes and along the bay dunes as well. Not very ornamental, but they do grow in pure sand and are totally salt resistant.

Hudsonia growing in pure sand at a fully exposed beach location. FUNGUS GUY/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, CC BY-SA 3.0

Hudsonia growing in pure sand at a fully exposed beach location. FUNGUS GUY/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, CC BY-SA 3.0

Calluna vulgaris

Calluna vulgaris "Jana" in an ornamental planting. They don’t fill in quickly so plan to plant on 1-foot centers. KRZYSZTOF ZIARNEK, KENRAIZ/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, CC BY-SA 4.0

Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz,/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, CC BY-SA 4.0

Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz,/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, CC BY-SA 4.0

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Hampton Gardener®

  • Publication: Residence
  • Published on: Jan 12, 2023
  • Columnist: Andrew Messinger

Several decades ago in the very early days of spring I would venture out on the East End highways and byways and begin my annual pilgrimage to local garden centers. My search was for the garden center harbingers of spring — the first arrival of the pansies. But thanks to plantsman Jim Cross (who passed in 1995) there was a new and exciting group of plants showing up weeks before the pansies.

My horticultural curiosity was sparked by his container-grown heaths and heathers that not only bloomed during and as the snow was melting, but he had found a way to grow and mass produce them right here on Long Island, a feat previously thought to be impossible.

For years Cross produced a limited quantity of these plants — just enough to supply his customers with one or two shipments. If you waited a few weeks to decide to buy some, they were all gone. Alas, it was many years before I was brave enough to start some at my house in Shinnecock Hills, where they easily established in the poor soil.

After all, heaths and heathers were very difficult to grow, especially here in the sandy, wind-swept soils of the East End. Wrong! Not only wrong, but I later found that a close relative and local native called Hudsonia tomentosa, or beach heather, grows within feet of our ocean dunes and bay beaches.

What makes heaths and heathers so special is their ability to transform the winter and early-spring landscape into a magical garden wonderland. Brush away the snow that covers some varieties, and they’ll be blooming away. And plan your garden with some care and research and you may have these plants blooming in one variety or another and one color or another from February until late June and possibly beyond.

Unquestionably, these plants are under used, and there is no question that some of the varieties can be finicky. They are not for every garden in every situation, but if you have sandy soil, can hold back on the fertilizer and water and provide a good breeze then these plants may be for you.

Native to the moors of Scotland and other places in Europe, heaths and heathers (Erica and Calluna) are truly the plants of the wasteland. Rarely bothered by bugs or disease, they can become quite permanent once well rooted, and some of the species will self-seed and colonize, but these colonies tend to jump around as opposed to forming huge, tight mats of foliage. One caution, though. In the very coldest of winters when there has been little snow cover, the plants can suffer. In these situations a light mulch of salt hay can mean the difference between life and death. On the other hand, Hudsonia (a heather relative) has survived in certain spots along Dune Road and Meadow Lane for generations if not hundreds of years all within a gale’s blow of the nearby Atlantic.

To the untrained eye, heaths and heathers seem much the same. Gardening verbiage hasn’t helped the situation either as we seem to lump both into the general group “heathers.” The secret in telling them apart is to look closely at the leaves. Heaths have needle-like foliage that comes straight out from the stems. Heathers, on the other hand, have softer, fuzzier foliage that tends to overlap and remain close to the stem.

The heaths consist of hundreds of species, the most popular of which is Erica carnea. This species along with its many cultivars are the ones that bloom any time from December into late March.

Caluna is the genus for heather. The garden varieties of this group generally flower from late April through October and mostly belong to the single species Caluna vulgaris.

The most spectacular garden setting that I’d seen of these was the private garden of English plantsman Adrian Bloom. His collection ran counter to the common wisdom that planting them in formal beds is a no-no. His border gardens are flowing ribbons of masses of dwarf to medium-sized evergreens completely surrounded and engulfed by hundreds of flowing feet of heathers that are in some state of bloom from December through late May.

Both heaths and heathers are best planted from early to mid-spring and again in the fall. It’s during these times that the plants’ roots are actively growing, and along with cooler days and moist soils the plants can become established with a minimum of stress. Remember, these are wasteland plants and will not tolerate what we have come to know as “good” soils that are enriched with too much organic matter including composts and manures. Peat moss and sand will do just fine, thank you.

Remember that root stimulation at planting time is of the utmost importance because it’s the well-developed root mass that will help these plants adapt to the possibility of hot summers and dry spells in late winter. You may even want to consider the use of a mild biostimulant as a soil drench at planting time to stimulate root growth, but don’t add any fertilizers.

If the plants have been container grown you may need to loosen up the root mass or even cut it vertically around the outside perimeter. Plant at the same depth as they were in the pot — just so the stems are touching the ground. Make sure after they are watered in that they don’t sink. The crown should never be allowed to sink lower than the surrounding soil.

Place the plants far enough apart so they will grow together without crowding. Ericas spread up to 2 feet and should be spaced 18 to 30 inches apart. Leave about a foot between low-growing callunas and up to 2 feet for the taller-growing varieties.

Keep the soil slightly moist for the first six weeks or so but don’t allow the plants to stand in water. An automatic sprinkler system will probably kill them faster than anything else. Remember: wasteland.

Give the plants a few good waterings before the ground freezes next December and a very light mulching of pine needles or shredded oak leaves. This mulch will protect against winter sun and wind burn, and as the mulch slowly decomposes it will provide all the nutrients that these plants need.

Annual pruning, especially of the Callunas, is important for regeneration of new growth and for some shaping. By early April the Callunas should be cut back, and even if they look near death from the ravages of winter, a pruning to just above the soil level will usually result in a quick revival.

In general these plants have few insect or disease issues, and for the most part deer and rabbits will leave them alone. You are probably the biggest problem. They will resent overwatering, and improper feeding will result in poor results. This is truly a plant to somewhat ignore once established aside from seasonal pruning.

The winter blooming Ericas are pruned in early spring, but not as severely — just enough to keep the plants in bounds. If you are using summer heaths they will need to be pruned soon after the flowers fade.

In 1924 the Olmsted Brothers began to plan and develop a heather garden at Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay. Over the years and changes in ownership of Planting Fields this garden became weedy, overgrown and in need of serious work. In 2019 a funded restoration project began, and last year, in April, the Margaret Sullivan Heather Garden was completed and opened.

Every gardener should visit Planting Fields and especially for this garden. The property is pretty magnificent and has a long and interesting horticultural history. I spent many days there watching spring unfold in the 1970s, and it was undoubtedly an early influence on my horticultural career.

If you are going out to buy some of these plants look for ones at local garden centers. Talk to the staff at garden centers and ask if they carry these plants and when they will arrive. You may even be able to give them a wish list as these plants go fast and may be hard to find. Daniel J. Foley devoted a whole chapter to heath and heather in his book, “Gardening by the Sea” (Parnassus Imprints). The book is dated and only available used, but a book that every East End gardener should have. Keep growing.

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