Published in Heather News volume 22 number 2 #86 spring 1999, newsletter of the North American Heather Society.
by Joyce Descloux, Randolph, NJ
Heathers in cultivation die more often from lack of water than any other cause, usually in the first season they are planted. Scary, isn't it? But it need not be, if you learn to recognize when your plants need water, and then make sure they get it in the proper way and at the proper time. Heather gardens are made in five steps, each with an aspect to watering. Let's go over them.
1. Construct the bed with lots of coarse compost, pine bark, and humus,
which hold moisture in the soil. Stones or gravel mixed in help with drainage and also with moisture retention. Put the coarser stuff at the bottom of the bed, and tuck the finer mix around the plant so that all roots are in contact with soil, not air. Water each plant as soon as you plant it. When finished planting flood the entire bed. Then mulch with bark or stones or both and water once again
2. This critical first nursery year you have to be attentive all the time. It
helps if Mother Nature sends a steady, gentle rain about three times a week, but that's not often the case, and YOU have to take over. Set a hose with a soaker nozzle on a flat stone in the middle of the bed and let water slowly seep down to the root zone. Move it about so as to permeate the entire bed. if you have trouble discerning when the soil needs watering, there are indicators you can buy to tell you The heather bed should never become dry this first year. If it does the plants will be dead before you know it.
3. The second year is developmental. You may have to replace or move
plants. You will need to prune heathers a little in spring. You should also add more mulch, as this breaks down. Except for new plantings which need Step Two care, your plants should be established well enough not to need watering more than once a week or ten days (when it doesn't rain), except during a heat wave. Water early in the day so that the wet foliage dries before nightfall.
4. In their third year your heathers should give lots of bloom if they have been well cared for. Their roots will have knit together beneath the soil in a thick water-holding web which supplies most of their needs. Beyond routine pruning and additional mulch, they should need little care. Give supplemental watering only after two weeks or more without rain.
5. In the fourth or fifth year. depending on the varieties you are growing, your plantings should be mature enough not to need more than routine maintenance to keep the beds in good order. By now you will have seen that yearly pruning keeps heathers tidy and healthy and also promotes maximum bloom. Adding mulch periodically keeps the plants from growing too high out of the ground. It also keeps the bed from settling too much as the compost down below decomposes. But it primarily keeps the bed from drying out. Water only in times of drought, a month without rain. Your heathers are grown up now and "on their own." Enjoy them!