The growing conditions for these colorful plants are similar. Karla Lortz of Heaths and Heathers Nursery offers these tips.
Prep the soil. Heaths and heathers are acid lovers, preferring a soil pH of 4.5-5.5. Although some heaths are more tolerant of alkaline soil, particularly Irish heath (Erica erigena), most types will struggle. Work in damp peat moss or other acidic soil amendments, particularly if your soil is pH neutral (6.5-7.5). Till or loosen the soil and dig holes twice as wide as each plant's root ball to encourage roots to spread.
Provide drainage. Without good drainage, these plants just won't grow. For clay soil (which provides neither the right pH nor proper drainage), build a raised bed with equal parts topsoil, sand, and composted bark or peat moss, which will create acidic soil that properly drains. For boggy soil (which may be the right pH but too wet), make a modest berm.
Plant. Shear newly purchased plants to encourage bushiness, and plant in spring or early autumn. Water twice a week for the first several months so the ground is moist but not soggy. This will encourage rapid, vigorous growth to get plants established. Apply a mulch of your choice, preferably an acidic one (such as pine straw, peat moss, or leaf mold). After two or three years, heathers and heaths are generally drought-tolerant and can take care of themselves.
Allow for spacing. Space the plants about as far apart as the plant's mature width to allow air circulation, which is important for good foliage growth and color but close enough so the plants will eventually mound together. If you are planting in Zones 7-9, Lortz recommends whorled heath (Erica manipuliflora; 'Korcula' is a good cultivar).
Consider sun exposure. Allow for a minimum of six hours of sun a day for best foliage effect. The foliage will be best on the south side of the plant, especially for red varieties. Six or more hours of sun are also recommended with afternoon shade in hotter areas. Too much shade makes the plants leggy and dulls the brilliance of those that have colorful foliage.
Consider winter exposure. Avoid situating plants in areas that receive harsh winter winds; as evergreens, they suffer severe dehydration. Or apply a winter mulch such as evergreen boughs. In areas with deep snow cover, plants will be fine.
Don't fuss. Heaths and heathers actually like poor soil. Giving annual doses of fertilizer is deadlier than not giving any at all. Fertilize once with rhododendron feed upon planting -- then leave your plants alone. About the only work you need to do is give them a yearly shearing. This is best done in the spring before any buds have set or, for winter bloomers, after the flowers have faded. Calluna vulgaris should be cut back below the old flowers; the Erica spp. can be lightly pruned to encourage bushiness.
Continued on page 4: Gallery of Greats