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Publication: Garden Guides
Brighten Up Your Winter Garden

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                   GardenGuides Newsletter 
                      November 28, 2006

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Just because the trees are bare and there is snow on the 
ground doesn't mean that your garden has to become a dreary 
winter wasteland. With just a little bit of planning berries 
can bring color and vibrancy to the winter garden and give 
you (and the birds) something to enjoy during the cold weather 
months. Here are a few to look into:

1. American Cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum)
2. American Holly (Ilex opaca)
3. Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
4. Northern Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)
5. Tea Viburnum (Viburnum setigerum)
6. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
7. Winter King Hawthorne (Crataegus viridis)

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Winter Heaths

It goes without saying that heaths are colorful, versatile, and 
useful year-round evergreen shrubs. But you may not know the 
winter-blooming heaths, which add a splash of color to gardens 
throughout winter. These hardy, low-growing plants produce a 
wide variety of bell-shaped or tubular pale pink, reddish 
purple, and magenta flowers for what seems like an eternity 
October and November into April and May. And the heath foliage 
itself paints your landscape with colors ranging from pale 
greens and yellows to light shades of copper, bronze, gold.

Properly selected and planted, winter-blooming heaths grow 
almost anywhere, from Maine to Florida and Alaska to Hawaii. 
They work well in borders, with other small conifers and 
shrubs, in rock gardens, or perhaps best of all, by themselves. 
In northern snowbelt areas, (USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 
6), heaths actually bloom under the snow, their flowers re-
vealed as snow recedes in early spring. If you live in these 
regions, choose varieties that are in bloom near the beginning 
or end of the snowfall season (see list of varieties below).

Heaths (cousins of the true Scotch heathers, Calluna vulgaris) 
include three groups of winter-blooming varieties and more 
than a dozen other summer-blooming types. All are members of 
the large Ericaceae family, which also includes rhododendrons, 
azaleas, and blueberries.

Winter Hardiness
Hardiest and most readily available of the winter-blooming 
heaths are varieties of Erica carnea. With winter protection 
many varieties thrive in zone 4 (to -25° F.) and sometimes 
even in parts of zone 3. The bushier E. darleyensis varieties 
are usually hardy in zone 5 (-20° F.). Least hardy are 
varieties of E. erigena, which are more difficult to obtain 
and are usually hardy only in zones 7 (0° F.).

Spring Heath
Also called snow heather, spring heath (Erica carnea) is 
native to mountainous areas of eastern Europe. There, plants 
thrive in coniferous woods and on stony slopes, and in spite 
of harsh winterconditions. Their prostrate habit and fast 
growth make them excellent plants for a rock garden, on a 
slope, filling in a heather (Calluna) garden; they also make 
long-blooming companions for other plants. Most of the nearly 
100 named varieties are low and carpeting, 6 to 9 inches tall 
with a spread of 2 feet or less. Some bushier varieties may 
reach a foot in height and spread about 2 feet in diameter. 
Well-established plants require very little attention and form 
a weed-smothering carpet.

Some varieties start blooming as early as November, and others 
early in the new year. Most finish flowering in late May, and 
within days begin to set buds for the next season.

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Blossom colors vary from white through pink and lavender to 
deep reddish purple and magenta. Many darken with age to give 
a bicolor effect. Foliage ranges from golden yellow and pale 
green to deep or grayish green, sometimes with streaks of gold 
on the leaves. Some kinds sport cream or pink tips on new 
growth. Flower buds form in summer but may take as long as 
nine months to bloom. Actual blooming times depend a lot on 
the climate. When winters are mild, flowers tend to open up to 
two months earlier than when winters are harsh.

Microclimates and gardening techniques can make a big differ-
ence in both blooming time and amount of bloom. Even in the 
same garden, plants in protected locations or in raised beds 
or amended soil often flower much earlier than the same plant 
in natural soil or in an exposed location.

Erica Darleyensis
These have a long flowering period, are suitable to almost any 
soil, and need very little pruning to remain neat and compact. 
Heights range from about 8 inches to almost 2 feet. Most are 
neatly shaped bushes that spread from 1 to 3 feet, depending 
on the variety. Many varieties have pleasing pink or cream tips 
of new growth in spring, and some foliage is accented with 
bronze tones in winter. Buds form in late summer or very e fall, 
and some varieties begin blooming as early as September often 
continuing well into May. As on E. carnea, many flowers open 
pink and deepen to reddish purple as the season progresses.

Irish Heath
Most varieties of Irish Heath (Erica erigena) bloom in late 
winter or in spring. They are less hardy than the other two 
winter-blooming heaths and are often much taller, at least 3 
feet and up to 12 feet tall. They are also more difficult to 
find. The branches of Irish heath tend to be woody and brittle, 
and will snap under heavy snow loads.

How to Grow Heaths
Because heaths have fibrous, shallow roots, so plants grow 
best in sandy, well-drained soil. Add peat moss or compost 
to improve drainage, or plant in raised beds or mounds. And 
as for other plants of this family, they need slightly acidic 
soil. If your soil is alkaline or nearly so, use fertilizers 
recommended for azaleas and rhododendrons, or similar acid 
formulations. Winter-blooming heaths can also be planted in 
containers but don't perform well inside the house or on a 
shady porch.

Plant heaths in full exposure to the sun. Plants can tolerate 
partial shade, but they won't bloom as well and tend to get 
leggy.	

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In most areas, early spring or early fall are best planting 
times. Prepare a hole at least twice as wide as the size of 
the rootball. Partially fill the hole with compost or topsoil. 
Don't plant too deep! Heaths have shallow roots and do best 
if planted at about the same depth as they grow in the pot. 
Water well after planting.

Good drainage is important. Scoring or lightly scratching the 
root ball in two or three places helps plants establish 
quickly. Established heaths are quite drought resistant, but 
failure to water adequately the first two seasons is the prime 
reason for plant loss.

Winter-blooming heaths require very little pruning. It is 
safest to prune, when needed, as soon as flowers fade because 
buds are set almost immediately for the next season. To 
encourage compactness and flowering, prune around the edges 
of the plant and very lightly over the top. Spring pruning may 
also be necessary to repair winter damage. Clip off broken or 
dead branches, and shape the plant. Heaths can take severe 
pruning when necessary but can be damaged if heavily pruned 
before hard frosts.

Winter protection is necessary where subzero temperatures are 
common, particularly when they occur before significant snow 
accumulation. If your plants will be exposed to months of 
severe cold, use evergreen boughs, straw, or canvas to protect 
them from cold or from drying winds. Avoid heavy mulches, such 
as leaves, which will mat and possibly injure the plant. Anti-
desiccant sprays can also be applied.

A light application of acid fertilizer in spring is usually 
enough. A granular type that can be watered into the soil is 
best. Don't apply fertilizer to the foliage, and keep it at 
least two inches from the stem.

Pests and Diseases
Heaths are easy to grow and have few natural enemies. 
However, well-drained soil will help prevent root rot, or 
erica wilt (Phytophthora cinnamoni). This fungal disease 
kills the roots, causing the foliage to wilt and die. 
Fungicides are available, but prevention is ultimately 
easier.

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