With very little care, these compact shrubs will reward you with an early splash of colour for many years to come, whether you decide to grow them in the ground or plant them into pots.
What are heathers?
Heather is actually a group name for three different types of plant; erica, calluna and daboecia. It’s easy to tell them apart.
Erica has needle-like leaves, while the stems of calluna are clad with scale-like, overlapping leaves. Daboecia has either lance-shaped or elliptical leaves, and the flowers are much larger than the others.
Most heathers range in height from 15cm (6in) to 60cm (24in), but tree heaths (Erica arborea) can reach 6m (20ft) when mature.
Read our guide to planting an autumn into winter container.
Best heathers to grow for winter flowers
Most winter-flowering heathers are cultivars of Erica carnea and Erica x darleyensis. Among the best are E. carnea 'Springwood White', a variety with trailing stems, and its brighter cousin, E. carnea 'Springwood Pink'.
E. carnea 'December Red' has urn-shaped blooms that start off pink and deepen to a light purple as they mature, while E. carnea 'Vivelli' grows into a 22cm (9in) clump of bronze foliage that makes the perfect backdrop for a mass of purplish flowers that appear from January until mid-spring.
E. x darleyensis 'White Perfection' makes a 40cm (16in) plant with pure white flowers, while the dark foliage of E. x darleyensis 'White Glow' makes the ideal foil for its bell-shaped blooms. Other winners include magenta E. x darleyensis 'Kramer’s Red', mauve E. x darleyensis 'Jack H.Brummage' and E. x darleyensis 'Darleydale', whose pinkish purple blooms last from December until April.
Where to grow heathers
Most heathers prefer moist, but free-draining acidic soil with a pH of 4.5 to 5, and a sunny position, although cultivars of E.carnea and E. x darleyensis can be grown in more alkaline soil.
They are perfect in rock gardens or grown in swathes at the edge of beds, alongside flowering perennials and grasses.
Alternatively, raise them in 30cm (12in) containers filled with John Innes Ericaceous Compost – either plant in groups of three, or combine with dwarf grasses and annuals to extend the season of interest.
Find out how to make a rock garden.
Looking after heathers
Maintaining heathers couldn’t be easier. Water plants regularly during periods of drought and remove any suffocating leaves from deciduous trees that drop onto the plants in the autumn. Lightly trim winter-flowering varieties in April after they have finished flowering – follow the contours of the plants using secateurs or a pair of hand shears.
Where to buy heathers
Most garden centres and nurseries will have a range of heathers for sale, but for a bigger choice, buy from a specialist grower.
Read our guide to giving your winter garden extra sparkle.