I’ve always had a bit of a problem with heather in the garden. I hate seeing it dotted through a border, or worse, crammed into those narrow beds people insist in building in the tops of walls. I have inherited both. Don’t get me wrong, its a beautiful family of plants. I also know that heather is a fabulous plant for pollinators, and can be invaluable in providing colour and nectar both very early and very late in the year. I can just never quite get my head round using it in a border. I think it may be because I was brought up on holidays in North Wales and the Lake District, often walking up mountains, admiring the vast swathes of heather while snacking on bilberries at rest stops.

There is a lot of heather on Anglesey. Heather and gorse, with the occasional hawthorn sculpted by the wind into a strange lopsided shape, cover the interior of the Island. A couple of weeks ago, driving back from picking up our free composting bins (thank you Anglesey County Council!), TNG asked me what the bright purple stuff was. He’d never seen massed heather in full bloom before, so when we had to drive to a village near the Parys Mountain copper mines I suggested we swing by on our way back and admire the heather.

heather at Parys Mountain copper mines

The copper mines at Parys Mountain have been worked since the bronze age, and in the 18th and 19th centuries this was the largest copper mine in the world. There are some underground workings, but the majority is open cast, and over the last decade funding has been made available to turn what had been used as an unofficial refuse tip into a tourist attraction and educational resource. A rather splendid viewing platform has been built, with some of the most beautiful stone walling I think I have ever seen.

viewing platform
beautiful wall

I have to be honest, as I was wandering around in the lovely late afternoon sunshine taking photographs, I was planning a blog post about how heather belongs in the wild, not in gardens. After all, wouldn’t you rather see this than a sickly heather struggling to grow out of the top of a brick wall?

heather growing out of rock

But I think I may be in danger of converting. The more I look at the photos I took, the more I can see how you might use heather to great effect in a garden setting. What about using heather to line a path?

heather lining a path

OK, so it would only look glorious for a comparatively short period, but goodness what an impact.

Once I’d started looking at the photos with a different eye, I could see some great combinations of colour and form.

heather and flowering gorse
heather and grasses
combining heather
heather mingling with other plants
heather and dead gorse

I’ve been thinking a lot about the small pond we have inherited in the front garden. I always associate ponds with lush plantings, and that didn’t fit with my emerging vision for this area at all. Admittedly I will never exactly have a lake, even assuming we enlarge the pond, but there is a stark beauty to the areas of water up at the mines more reminiscent of the rock pools at the beach than the lushly green ponds of the English countryside.

heather growing by a lake
heather and water

I don’t know where I am going with this, but I have been forced to re-evaluate my assumptions about heather and how it can be used in the garden. And TNG got to see massed heather blooming, so altogether not a bad little detour!

30 thoughts on “Heather

  1. Hi Janet,

    I’ve never had any luck with Heather (har de har) and always seem to kill it off, although at the same time I’ve also never really wanted or needed it. Granted, I did buy some last Autumn but they were only £1 and meant purely to help fill a border for a few weeks before I’d (wrongly) assumed they’d die… It turns out they’ve survived and I do have to agree with you to some extent – they do look much better in a rugged, wild setting rather than amongst the Geraniums…

    Btw, I’m off to north Wales on Friday for a few days… No idea where I’m staying (not far past Chester my mum tells me), and I’m afraid to say I’m almost totally ignorant of Wales having only ever passed through to Hollyhead for the Ferry! It’ll be an experience anyway and with the forecast lovely weather I plan to spend it all on the beach, watching the sea and maybe visiting a garden or castle. Who knows, mum might even take me to Anglesey! :)

    1. Typical isn’t it, when you don’t expect something to survive, it proves you wrong. When you desperately want it to keep going, it dies on you…

      “Not far past Chester” sounds as if it might be a looong way from Anglesey, but if you do end up over here, I’ll drop you an email with my phone number and you can call in! Otherwise, enjoy your break – and hopefully you too will see heather in the wild in all its glory!!

      1. Hi Janet,

        I have quite a nice white Heather, planted by the previous owners which is doing quite well, albeit hidden by ‘cousin it’ cotoneaster. The bonus is that it also blooms in winter when there’s little else about! But yes I do still agree that enmasse is much better. Oh don’t worry, I’ve seen lots of heather in my time… Visiting Scotland most years of my life, plus Sheffield’s boundaries are in the Peak and there’s plenty of Heather up there too :)

        Ok, phoned mum and we’re staying on the coast near Rhyl which is apparently 30 mins or so from Anglesey. Planning a very relaxed time, mostly watching the sea and enjoying the early Autumn sun.

  2. I tried to grow heather when I first moved here, mostly because I missed seeing it. It was a dismal failure. I loved seeing these beautiful photographs though, just as heather should look, massed, and wild. I do think you’re right though, if it’s happy growing in a garden, I think it could be used, but I still think it would be most effective planting in a mass, rather than a single plant. I do like the idea of lining a path with it!

    1. Definitely massed, not dotted. I’m wondering about a large clump, near a path, with some grasses… Glad you enjoyed the photos!

  3. I really like the drifts of color that heather gives to a landscape. I was surprised that you called that one coming out of the rocks as sickly…I love that look. I have Spleenwort growing out of my rockwall and have moss covering some of the rocks….if only heather did well here. It would be in my garden in a heartbeat.

    1. Hi Janet, sorry, I meant that the specimen in my garden, planted in a tiny pocket in the top of a wall looked very sorry. Should have added a photo of it for contrast! The heather growing out of the rock like that looks wonderful.

  4. We used to have a heather bed years ago but haven’t had any for a while sort of for similar reasons to you – plant association – I’m not sure I have somewhere in my garden where it would look ‘right’.

    1. Funny, isn’t it, how some plants seem hard to combine. I used to have a heather bed too. It was ghastly!!

  5. I have always been of the opinion that heather looks best on the mountain side, you might have a point though, lining a path is a good idea. But if there is so much on the island, do you need it in your garden as well? What fantastic colours in the rocks and yes, the stone wall is beautiful.

    1. Hi Pauline, no I don’t think I need heather in the garden, it is more a case of being forced to re-assess its potential as a garden plant, I think.

  6. That really does look great Janet, and love those stone walls too!. Heather really does look at their best, in large drifts in the wild, where they do well and complementing the surroundings. Most garden borders where they are planted have rich, alkaline soil, hence they don’t thrive and look sickly after a few weeks. And what about those horrible spray painted heather often sold in garden centres in the autumn…

    Gorgeous sceneries indeed!

    1. Eugh, yes, I know the heathers you mean, truly awful… The ph of the soil here seems to vary enourmously, and the little heathers “dotted” in amongst the violas seem very happy. Little do they know…

  7. I rather agree with Pauline, as there is so much perfectly planted heather near you, do you need it in the garden where it can only be planted in small areas. I once planted heather and grasses under birch trees in quite a large front garden along with some rather beautiful stones, but in small patches it really looks rather sad. The stone wall is wonderful and it’s good to know that the skills are still alive to build it now. Christina

    1. Hi Christina, I very much doubt I will wind up planting it in the front garden, I already have a potential plants list as long as my arm, and I am supposed to be trying a little restraint, the whole “less is more” thing. That will be a miracle. But it has made me think, which is always good.

  8. I confess I love heather. Such a gorgeous plant but I know what you mean about some plants being used in certain, not particularly attractive ways, over and over. I think the trick is to hate the usage but not the plant.

    1. Absolutely, I couldn’t possibly hate heather itself, it is utterly glorious when in flower en masse.

  9. I love heather but on a hillside or moorland, I’ve never liked it in a garden. This has something to do with growing up in a garden with conifers and heathers everywhere. I’ve been scarred. Maybe you could bring them back into fashion with a new and imaginative way of using them. I agree the shot of colour is lovely and the scent from the flowers can be intoxicating. I love heather honey, when I have it on my toast I’m immediately transported to the wild moorland around Haworth in the Pennines.

    1. Ah yes, that conifer-heather combo. Enough to put someone off gardening for life! Haworth is certainly beautiful, but I think for sheer grandeur the site of Scottish mountains – preferably running down to a sea loch – covered in blooming heather is pretty hard to beat. Jury is out on whether I take on the challenge of rehabilitating heather as a desirable and stylish garden plant!

  10. I’ve wanted to see hillsides of heather in bloom ever since reading “The Secret Garden” as a girl. (At the time, because it’s what Dickon did, lying down in it and wrinkling my nose like a rabbit sounded like a good idea too. Not sure about now.) Your photos are just gorgeous! From what you’ve shown, I could see heather being wonderful in a Piet Oudolf-y sort of garden, or as part of a broad, texture-y carpet rather than a traditional border with front-middle-back heights. In an odd way, the look and textures are very southwestern.

    1. Hi Stacy, I love that book, and remember practising nose wrinkling too… I agree, heather does not suit a traditional border, but as part of a textured planting I think it could be stunning. Hope you get to see heather blooming “in the flesh” some time, it is truly wonderful.

  11. Janet beautiful photos of heather and rock, I kept thinking of things to comment on but now find there are so many I don’t know where to start, I have a book with a lovely photo of heathers, sedums and low growing rosemary, surprisingly it works but it is in a large garden and is on a slight slope, the heather you see flowering now are Callunas but Ericas flower for longer and at different times of the year, I was given 2 Ericas years ago, I wasn’t very keen as I felt I had enough heather in my garden as nature made it, anyway I have come to love these Ericas as they flower winter and very early spring, I even added a couple more recently, the heather on a wall, in some areas they top a dry stone wall with a live heather thatch, there is a lovely one in Harris sorry I don’t have a photo and without a car now I can no long get to it, think out side the box, Frances

    1. Hi Frances, I think because to me heather is always calluna and flowers in summer, I have never been able to get my head round winter flowering ericas! I really like the sound of heather with sedums and rosemary, but I think it is something that you would need a large patch of for it to work, and although my front garden is a good size, I don’t think I have the scope for that with all the other stuff going on.

  12. I love the look of masses of heather…here people use it as a plant amongst their evergreens and other shrubs…it doesn’t have the right effect…but I love the ideas you found while wandering in the wild.

    1. Hi Donna, you describe exactly the kind of planting that gives me the shudders! I think I am going to have to leave the heather for the surrounding wild places, and enjoy it to the full when it is in bloom.

  13. Heather doesn’t grow well here so my only experiences with it are through blogs/photos. I think that gardeners buy into the philosophy that something has to be fabulous all year long to be worthwhile. But where would that leave tulips or daffodils? If it makes you happy and you love it, then plant it, even if it only blooms for a short bit.

    1. I agree about the obsession with “all year round interest”, for me it is a question of balance. In a relatively small space most things have to work hard, but where would we be without those more temporary eruptions of colour? Poppies spring to mind even more so than daffs.

  14. I have always admired heathers and heaths, but only from afar. While they are often sold here to unsuspecting gardeners, they are terribly unsuited to our hot humid summers and suffer a lingering death. However, they are not bad as winter annuals.

    1. Hi Les, I can imagine people using them to good effect as winter annuals, though in your climate I have the sense that they would still somehow look wrong, they are so much a plant of the wild and windswept moors and mountainsides, your lush climate would be a bit of a culture clash! Here you tend to see people filling containers with a selection of differently coloured heathers for winter interest, probably because the supermarkets and DIY sheds sell them in packs of 6 really cheaply. I think it looks sad and messy…

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