North Coast Gardening with Heather

The undulating mounds in the Thompson heather garden mimic the rolling hills in the distance. Photograph by RGT

The undulating mounds in the Thompson heather garden mimic the rolling hills in the distance. Photograph by RGT

Why grow heathers? [Reason #9:] Their fascination: they get you!

Harry van de Laar, The Heather Garden

Gardening on the bluffs above the ocean along California’s North Coast presents some particular challenges and special rewards for gardeners with patience and persistence. Sandy, acid soils, combined with cool, often foggy weather followed by bright sun, and salty breezes require that plants in such locations tolerate all these disparate conditions. Several gardeners in the communities of Mendocino and Fort Bragg have found that hardy heathers, mixed with a few conifers and grasses, are particularly well suited to the rigors of the coastal climate and their resulting gardens are beautiful to behold.

The term “heather” specifically refers to Scots heather (Calluna vulgaris) and its many cultivars, all members of the Ericaceae (the heath or rhododendron family); these heathers flower in late summer and fall, and in Scotland, where they are native, they color the hillsides with lavender during the flowering season. However, “heather” also has come to be used in reference to several other genera in the heath family (Erica, Daboecia, Cassiope, Andromeda)—and a few that occur in other families. The genus Erica, from which the family gets its name, is more properly called heath, but a few species are known colloquially as heather; flowering seasons vary with each species, a few even flowering in winter. Ericas are found in the British Isles, parts of western Europe, along the Mediterranean Sea, and in South Africa; those from South Africa are generally tender and will only tolerate the coastal conditions along America’s northern Pacific Coast if they are protected from the wind and from occasional heavy frosts.

Our main concern here is with the hardy species of heather and heath. These plants will tolerate the challenging climate of the North Coast, but they do have special cultural requirements that must be met in order for them to thrive. Full sun and acid soil are musts; soil pH is best in the range of 4 to 5, although a few species of Erica will tolerate a pH higher than 6.5. Heather should never be allowed to dry out completely, so new plantings must be watered once a week; well-established mature plants are somewhat more drought resistant and require less water. In addition, mulching, to control weeds and maintain soil moisture, and careful pruning at the right season are necessary to assure a healthy, vital heather garden.

The final consideration in planting a heather garden is the choice of plants—a challenging but pleasurable task due to the array of species and cultivars now available. A decision must be made to plant a bed for a peak period of bloom at one season during the year, or one that will have something in flower throughout most of the year. In a bed that peaks at one season, the clever use of varied foliage will provide year-round interest. Of course, if the garden is large enough, it is possible to have several beds that peak at different times.

An undulating crazy quilt of heaths and heathers at the Mendocino Coast Botanic Gardens. Photographs by Michael Addison, except as noted

An undulating crazy quilt of heaths and heathers at the Mendocino Coast Botanic Gardens. Photographs by Michael Addison, except as noted

A Sampling of Coastal Gardens

The heather garden at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (MCBG) is a good example of a large, well-planted garden that meets all the special needs of a wide selection of heathers. In August of 2000, many of the heathers there will be in peak bloom, putting on a show for members of the North American Heather Society (NAHS) attending their annual meeting at the Botanical Gardens. Several cultivars of Calluna vulgaris will be flowering in colors ranging from clear white to pale pink, magenta, and deep purple. Selections of both species of Daboecia (D. azorica and D. cantabrica) will also be in flower, with rose-purple to white, urn-shaped flowers (larger than those of Calluna) dripping from every stem. The garden appears as an undulating crazy quilt, with plants massed in irregular mounds. There are also handsome dwarf or slow-growing conifers interplanted to provide contrasting textures and shapes, as well as restful greens for this visually exciting landscape.

The Botanical Gardens has been developing its heather garden since the early 1980s. Mario Abreu, staff gardener for the heather collection and president of the California North Coast Chapter of the NAHS, has worked closely with the chapter to develop the collection. Over the years, the MCBG garden has served as inspiration for many local heather specialists including Joan Murphy, who has been developing her one-acre coastal heather garden for the past nine years. With a view of the ocean from her doorstep, she has planted several beds of heather to create a garden of pleasing forms and varying foliage and flower color. An oval bed is sited in front of the house with beds on either side, each featuring several species and cultivars of heather along with companion plants of escallonia, hydrangea, coleonema, and ornamental grasses. In spring, a large-flowered form of Australian tea tree (Leptospermum rotundifolium ‘Manning’s Choice’) puts on a lovely display of single deep lavender-pink flowers . The Murphy garden is bordered with hedges that buffer the wind, but not the deer; fortunately, deer seem not to have an appetite for heather.

The white flowers of Daboecia cantabrica are much larger than those of Scots heather (Calluna vulgaris) in Joan Murphy’s garden

The white flowers of Daboecia cantabrica are much larger than those of Scots heather (Calluna vulgaris) in Joan Murphy’s garden

A bed in the rear garden is the most recently planted. Here, on a slope above the lawn new plants have been set out in groups of five, with plenty of room to grow. These young plants require more water than mature ones; special care must be taken with plantings on slopes as the water runs off quickly. Heather grows slowly but, as each group matures, its resulting mound will appear to be a single plant and will fit snugly against neighboring mounds of other selections that have been similarly planted.

Joan spends many hours a week working in her garden maintaining the mature plants, propagating new ones, and developing new beds. Plants typically need replacement after about eight years of growth, so there are always new plants being propagated and groomed as replacements for older plants passing their prime. Pruning is a labor of love, as each plant (or mound) must be carefully pruned by cutting just below the faded flower; harder pruning, down to woody stems, guarantees that there will be no flowers in the future.

Among the best-known of coastal heather gardens is that of Jim and Beverley Thompson farther south along the coast in the town of Manchester. The Thompsons have been growing heather since 1985 and have a large garden that thrives in the same challenging climate as that encountered in Mendocino and Fort Bragg. A visit there in August enthralls. Sweeps of color entice the visitor to explore each nook and cranny of this intricate series of gardens, where flowers, foliage, and sculpture are all part of the complex interplay.

A dragon with newly hatched baby in the Thompson heather garden. Photograph by RGT

A dragon with newly hatched baby in the Thompson heather garden. Photograph by RGT

Facing the front of the house, Jim planted a series of rectangular beds that mimic the shape of the living room window. This multi-hued “stained-glass window” of heather is but one of many playful effects achieved in this garden. A dragon nestles nearby amongst mounds of heather, its ferocious head followed at intervals by scaly humped back and tail sections. For the adventurous, a large tree house atop a winding staircase offers a perch from which to view much of the garden, which has been likened to a magic carpet. The colorful mounds undulate in varied hues, teasing the viewer’s eye with their textures, shapes, and intense colors.

Jim has propagated much of the heather in his garden. He buys no more than three plants of any selection, then takes cuttings to grow the number he needs. He has many species of heaths and heathers, plus more than 250 cultivars in his glorious garden, including Calluna ‘Forty-niner Gold’, a selection he developed. A walk through the garden with Jim is a visual and mental adventure. He lovingly identifies every plant and usually provides a story for each one.

The Davis garden enchants with the diversity of heathers (Calluna vulgaris cultivars) flowering together

The Davis garden enchants with the diversity of heathers (Calluna vulgaris cultivars) flowering together

Inspired by the Thompsons’ garden, Edith and Clark Davis began developing their heather garden in the early 1990s. They initially struggled to find plants that would grow in their one-third acre, located across the road from the ocean. Over the years, they have planted several irregularly shaped beds separated by a winding path. Their enthusiasm for the garden is evident throughout. One of the features of heather that they found particularly intriguing is the relative ease with which new cultivars develop. Their friend, Homer Ferguson, found a seedling of Calluna vulgaris ‘Foxhollow Wanderer’ in his garden. Edith and Clark take pleasure in trying new cultivars, always searching for those that will thrive and flower well in their situation. Homer’s seedling proved successful and they registered it with the Heather Society in England, naming it ‘Fort Bragg’.

One surprising benefit of growing heather for the Davises has been that the gophers, with which they used to be plagued, have disappeared from their garden. They also find that deer are rarely a problem, except when they occasionally trample plants or pull out newly planted ones.

A recently planted slope in the heather garden at Whitegate Inn, showing the spacing of young plants that allows for their eventual merging into broad, colorful masses

A recently planted slope in the heather garden at Whitegate Inn, showing the spacing of young plants that allows for their eventual merging into broad, colorful masses

A much newer garden, regularly open to the public, is located at the Whitegate Inn in Mendocino. Here, around the bed-and-breakfast inn’s two houses, owners Carol and George Bechtloff have planted a series of gardens  that incorporate a variety of heaths and heathers for season-long interest. The large Victorian house, built around 1883, has mature trees and shrubs that Carol incorporated in her garden planning. The flowering shrubs, perennials, and trees provide cut material for handsome flower arrangements placed throughout the inn; a traditional kitchen garden, designed by Carol, supplies herbs and inspiration for the kitchen. Next door is a cottage where a new heather garden is underway. This small garden is nestled in amongst a grouping of rocks and shows promise of a good display of flowers this fall. The plants have been arranged in masses of several plants of each selection, widely spaced to provide growing room; with time they will mature into the mounds typically associated with an attractive heather garden. The houses and gardens are linked by a series of white picket gates that inspired the inn’s name and invite guests to enter and explore the fascinating world of hardy heathers.