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In the Garden

The joys of heather


SOME PEOPLE LIKE TO MAKE GARDENING a community event, sharing their little patch of earth with family, friends and neighbors. I am not one of those people. Two of the things I like best about gardening are that I get to be alone, and I get to be in control.

So when people ask my spouse if he's a gardener too, I jump in and say something sweet-tempered and kind like, "No! No, he does not garden. I am the gardener. The garden is mine." Poor thing, he might like to know the joys of planting daffodil bulbs in fall, or coaxing roses into bloom in summer. But he won't know those joys, at least not as long as he's married to me.

I try to be a benevolent dictator and compensate, in small ways, for my totalitarian approach to the garden. For instance, I do take requests. "I'd like one of those angel trumpets," Scott said one time, and I planted an angel trumpet. He likes to make pies and pastries, so it was not a great sacrifice to give up some space in the garden for an apple tree and a few berry vines.Photo of heather

Lately he's been talking about heathers. I agreed to plant a few when I expanded the flower garden this fall. The problem is, I don't know the first thing about heathers. I knew that there was a heather society in town, so after a few phone calls, I managed to track down Glenda Couch-Carlberg and Maria Krenek, owners of the Glenmar Heather Nursery in Bayside.

I arrived at the nursery on a Friday, which is the only day each week that the nursery is open. (It may close down for the winter soon, or remain open by appointment only, so it's a good idea to call before you go.) The nursery is located behind Maria's house, and when I pulled into the driveway I knew right away that I'd found a gardener after my own heart: Maria had ripped out a wide stretch of lawn and planted a heather garden in its place. More of the lawn is scheduled for destruction next year, and soon visitors to the nursery will get to see heathers shown off to their full advantage as a low-maintenance and free-flowering lawn alternative.

"These heathers have only been in the ground for one year, and they've already put out a lot of new growth," Maria said as we walked around the garden. "I put drip irrigation in to make it really low-maintenance, but they won't even need that in a few more years. Some of them do have to be cut back after they've flowered, but that's an easy job. A lot easier than mowing a lawn."

A thick layer of mulch keeps the weeds down, and good drainage prevents plant roots from rotting. Heathers are not bothered by deer, snails, or other pests, and rarely succumb to any diseases. Many bloom in the winter when everything else is dormant. And they love Humboldt County weather, preferring a sunny exposure to perpetually damp shade, but thriving in the cold and fog.

"An all-heather garden can be really spectacular," Maria said, showing me pictures of a private heather garden in Mendocino that is a riot of colors year-round. "The foliage itself comes in colors from deep green to grey and silver, and yellow, orange, and red. And the flowers range from white to pink to purple. Some heathers are even used as cut flowers in the floral trade."

It was not going to be easy to pick out just a few heathers for my flower garden. I had to make choices about foliage and flower color, height, and blooming season. While heathers fall into many different genera, including two (Cassiope and Phyllodoce) that include California natives, Glenmar specializes in three that are particularly popular among Humboldt County gardeners:

Calluna: Commonly known as "Scotch Heather," these plants do particularly well in the acid soils of the Northwest. Some varieties grow upright, reaching 2 feet tall, while others grow in a low mound. All require a light pruning in February or March to remove twiggy growth.

Daboecia: This is the "Irish Heath" that forms papery egg-shaped flowers in a spike along the stem. While some are low-growing, mounding plants, many more bloom on upright stems. These don't require much care at all apart from a little deadheading after they bloom.

Erica: When I walked through the rows of plants at the Glenmar Nursery, I realized that it was the Ericas that I liked the most. Some garden guides will refer to these plants simply as "heath," and they come in an astonishing range of colors that lend themselves particularly well to mass plantings. You can find Ericas that bloom at any time of the year, letting you plant a Persian carpet of a garden that will bloom in every season. I was particularly impressed by the number of bees that are drawn to these plants; it's nice to have something around in the off-season to keep the pollinators happy.


I ended up with three Ericas: Erica x darleyensis "Spring Surprise," which reaches a foot and a half tall and produces dark rose blooms in spring, and another variety, "Jenny Porter," which blooms in lilac starting in January. I also chose Erica arborea "Estrella Gold," which has lime green to gold foliage, grows up to 4 feet tall, and produces scented white flowers in spring.

There is one heather to avoid: Erica lusitanica, or Spanish heath. It is so invasive that the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society has put it on its "A-List" of harmful invasive weeds. It has needle-like evergreen foliage and tiny white flowers that are popular in the florist industry. The plant crowds out natives, alters soil pH, spreads quickly by seed, and is extremely difficult to get rid of once it's established. Don't worry about buying it by accident at Glenmarthey don't carry it.

There's still time to plant heathers this season, although you shouldn't expect flowers until next year. I'm already looking forward to having something in bloom in winter and early spring, when there's nothing else to do in the garden but watch the rain come down. It's a good thing I let Scott request a plant from time to time, because he always picks a winner. Who knows, maybe next year I'll let him come outside and pull a weed. Maybe.


If you'd like to see some heather in action, the Fortuna River Lodge's garden is planted with nearly 4,000 heathers and conifers, including over 200 different varieties of heathers, making it one of the largest heather collections on the West Coast. The Heather Society of the Redwood Empire (HERE) helps to maintain this site, and holds garden tours, meetings, and plant sales. In 2004, they'll sponsor a national heather conference. You can find out more about HERE by calling 725-3452.

The Glenmar Heather Nursery is open on Fridays or by appointment only. Call 268-5560 for hours and location or look for them at the Arcata Farmers' Market.

E-mail garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.

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