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Looking after Heather

Updated on March 25, 2011

Can I cut heather?

Heather can be a beautiful plant, but it can get untidy after flowering. Many gardeners therefore choose to trim heather back in the summer. There are two main types - bushy and tree heather.

They respond well to organic gardening techniques, and looks really good in your backyard when it is flowering.

Bushy heather is best cut back by around 50% in the summer. You can do this easily with a pair of sheers. Or even with a hedge cutter, if you feel particularly lazy. It won’t do the plant any harm at all and will stimulate it into growth.

If you want to prune tree heathers such as Erica arborea, you will need to make sure to trim it into shape the first year you have it. Once you have it in shape, it responds well to mild pruning, such as removing branches that are losing their shape.

Remember when cutting the heather, try to avoid cutting too deeply... it is probably best to use multiple passes rather than remove all the heather at once.

Traditional uses for heather?

Heather is considered a luck plant, the idea was popularized by the Victorians., but existed much earlier in Scotland than England. The Scottish always used to pick a sprig off heather plants when they passed one flowering.  

This superstition became so strong that in Victorian times some beggars used to sell it on the street – it was considered unlucky to refuse to buy it!

Perhaps this tradition was because heather is a relatively rare plant, and has many uses. For example, you can make heather ale from it, use it as durable thatching, or a rare and expensive yellow die. It is also great for making brooms.

Although these days it is more commonly used as simple decoration in the early spring, it has been used for treating arthritis.

Maybe a more practical use that is still common today is to use it as a basis of a potpourri, with lavender and dried flowers.

Planting Heather

Heather is best grown in rocky soil, with a PH of between 4.5 and 5.5 although it is a very hardy plant that will cope well with most conditions. They are especially good in cold damp conditions, and tend to suffer in really warm locations. So, a north facing garden is ideal for them.

Spacing requirements depend on the variety of heather, but they do require a fair space to grow, so as a rule planting them slightly further apart than you expect then to need is a good idea.

I suggest that you plant them in spring or autumn / early fall.

You can grow them from seed, although I find this is often quite tricky compared to other plants. Because heather tends to be inexpensive I generally think it is best to simply buy in a garden centre. Similarly, you can also take heather cuttings.

Once planted they do need a bit of water. Generally, watering the ground until it is moist immediately after planting, and then repeating the same process twice a week for a couple of months is a good idea.

If you have problems with slugs, you can buy nematodes that will kill them naturally. Other than that, Heather is very hardy and so shouldn't need much looking after,

They don’t need an awful lot of feed. You could give them a organic garden fertilizer, such as comfrey once every year. But they don’t really need much more than that.

Replacing Heather

While Heather is a hardy perennial plant, Heather can be quite short lived. While some people are lucky and will be able to grow it for a couple of decades, it is not that rare to find it die off after five or six years. Make sure you trim it back regularly.

If you do need to replace it, make sure that you put it in a different spot to stop diseases building up in the soil.

You can read more of my thoughts on gardening at hardy perennial.

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