I think, in my short time as a gardener, of such plants as Dahlias which I have seen go from being grown everywhere (remember front gardens full of nothing but) to not making their way into any self-respecting garden to now where they are enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity and finding their way into Herbaceous and mixed borders once more. The popularity of this genus is due in no small amount to the development and introduction of the newer and more choice varieties. Specimens which are now be the most sought after plants for the garden may, through no fault of their own end up falling foul of public opinion and suffering at the hands of that most fickle of things, personal taste.
During the 1970s and 80s Heathers were de rigueur in Irish gardens, nearly every home had some in their outdoor space. Everything had some Heathers planted beneath. If there was an area of soil then it was to be filled with Heathers and no more thought given.
Since then of course a lot more thought is given to ground cover plants and design of beds and gardens. Conifers too were fashionable during this period and they were nearly always planted with Heathers.
Like anything that is overdone and my God was that combination overdone, it is soon tired of. In the intervening twenty or thirty years Irish Heathers have been in the doldrums as regards popularity in Irish gardens. Not their deserved place in my opinion.
Irish Heathers are on trend again, I'm glad to say. They have a lot to offer the modern garden, not their fault that they were wrongly and over used in the past. There is a certain amount of maintenance involved, as they require pruning after flowering to keep them dense and low to the ground and to stop them getting leggy, woody and tall. When not properly maintained they look less than attractive and this is certainly part of why they became unpopular.
What they do offer is colour, evergreen ground cover and foliage interest with many different textures and colours from the golden foliage of Erica cinerea aureifolia and the copper coloured Erica vulgaris ‘Firefly’ to the dark green traditional Ericas.
I’m a fan, I love them when planted in the traditional way of an exclusive Heather bed in the right place and also when used as part of a mixed planting. I say that the traditional planting of a bed made up purely of Irish Heathers is nice when in the ‘right place’ because I don’t think that a bed outside the average home is the ‘right place’ as that area needs something that offers more varied interest.
These areas and these gardens need more variety in terms of flower colour and season of flower, contrasting textures and balance in design terms. Yes Irish Heathers are on trend again and they have their place in these gardens but as part of a bigger picture, part of a mixed and well-designed planting scheme.
They are often recommended to gardeners as many varieties bring winter colour. However in the same way as I wouldn’t plant a garden with only plants for summer colour so too I wouldn’t plant gardens full of winter flowering Heathers as when they are not in flower they are offering little and you will soon fall out of love with them.
Mix Irish Heathers with some ornamental grasses for great effect, the airy texture of grasses such as Carex testacea and Stipa tenuissima creating a lovely foil to the dense carpet like Heathers. For a more dramatic contrast use Hakonechloa macra Aureola, again the contrasting textures work but with this beautiful grass you are also introducing a vivid colour combination with some dark green Ericas beneath.
Finally do not be put off Heathers because you think you have the wrong soil type. If you have tried and failed in the past because of soil pH that is not because your soil isn’t suitable for them, it means that you have tried the wrong species for your soil. Most Heathers, be they Erica, Calluna or Daboecia will want an acid soil, the very name Erica being the stem of the term Ericaceous, meaning acid loving. But Erica x darlyensis and Erica carnea will tolerate limey or alkaline soil and there are many varieties of these that will allow you to have some flower in your garden through each month of the year.
If it’s just a quick shot of colour you’re after for your garden at the moment and let’s face it who wouldn’t want some cheering up during the dreary winter months then Heathers can be a great addition to seasonal pots, window boxes and containers. In particular keep aan eye out for the range of Calluna Twin Girls. Technically two varieties grown in the one pot, these will provide vibrant and long lasting blooms to brighten up even the dullest of days. Yes they will want an acid soil and if planting in the garden then attention will have to paid to pH but grow them in pots using the Living Green wormcast compost and then move into beds next year or even treat them as a bedding plant if your soil isn’t suitable for if they won’t survive in your soil they are still worth having for their winter beauty. Do try and source Irish grown specimens as they will be more successful than their Dutch grown counterparts.