Winter heather: how to grow these pretty and tough plants

Discover how to grow winter heather and add these colorful and super hardy plants to your flowerbeds, borders and containers

Winter heather flowering in a garden
(Image credit: Alamy)

Evergreen foliage and pretty, long-lasting flowers make winter heather a must-have for the cold season. If you're looking for instant winter garden ideas they are readily available in garden centres throughout the year. They are the ideal plant to enhance tired bedding displays or perk up a patio as part of a container display when the rest of the garden is looking a bit bleak.

The blooms are made up of dainty little bells that line the stems during winter, often for many months. Opening in reds, pinks and white, they provide food for insects that are out and about on sunny days.

This winning blend of floral and foliage effects makes heathers (also known as ericas) invaluable for winter. 'The evergreen foliage adds color during the colder months,' says Graham Rice, Amateur Gardening's resident expert. 'And it’s not just green – those in bronze shades are especially useful as they set off the brightness of small bulbs so well. There are also varieties in gold and amber, with reddish tints, and even those whose foliage changes as the seasons come and go.'

So, that’s good foliage all year round, plus delightful flowers over winter. And finally, there’s no garden for which winter flowering heather are too vigorous or grow too large. Though some reach 15-19in (40-50cm) in height, most grow to little more than half that 7in (20cm). You can grow them in a window box, or try a single plant in a 4in (12cm) pot. 

Where to plant winter heather

One of the features of these hardy winter heathers that endears them to gardeners is that, unlike other heathers, they’re happy in all soil types. The rest are fussy; they will sicken and fade away in limy soils and, consequently, won’t grow in the majority of gardens across the country. Winter heathers will (although they will not thrive in chalk).

Winter flowering heathers are happy in both alkaline and acid soils. Light, sandy soils are preferred, with clay being less suitable, although most heavy soils can be adapted for them by improving drainage with the addition of grit.

They’re at their happiest when planted in full sun, although they will also thrive when shaded from the side, so next to other taller plants in a garden border or near a wall or fence. As long as there isn't shade from overhead, heathers will be fine.

close up of Erica carnea pink winter flowering heather

(Image credit: Alamy)

When to plant winter heather

The great thing about winter heather is that you can plant it at any time of the year. There are just a few things to bear in mind depending on when you decide to plant. 

If you're often worried about how to protect plants from frost, then winter heathers won't give you much cause for concern as they are very hardy. 

If you're planting them in winter, do beware of cold winds, however, as they can dry out the foliage. In summer and during hot spells, keep the soil moist.

For best effect, plant in groups of three or five heathers of the same variety, rather than a group of mixed varieties.

Erica herbacea "Pirbright Rose" winter heather

(Image credit: Alamy)

How do you take care of winter heather?

'Heathers are low maintenance plants that need little in the way of hands-on care. However, they do need trimming after flowering to keep them in shape and encourage prolific flowering the following year,' says our resident expert Ruth Hayes, who has a large winter heather plant in her own garden.

'If you don’t get round to pruning them don’t worry, it isn’t the end of the world, but you will see a difference if you do tidy them up. Because my plant is so large I like to use a sharp, clean pair of shears. You may find it easier to use secateurs when cutting back smaller specimens.

'Only remove the spent flower spikes and a couple of inches of green growth beneath. Never cut into the older brown wood as it is unlikely to produce more new shoots afterwards, resulting in bare patches around the bush.'

Feeding your heather after pruning isn’t essential, but some balanced fertilizer will give your heather a boost. 'If you can’t see the base of the plant, lightly scatter a little fertilizer over the top and it will be blown or washed down to the roots,' adds Ruth. 

Pink flowered heather on woody stems with purple flowered hellebores behind, photographed on a cold winter's day

(Image credit: Alamy)

Growing winter heather in pots

Smaller heathers make some of the best plants for winter pots – the scale is just right to be part of a larger scheme. Choose varieties of the compact Erica carnea, rather than the taller E. x darleyensis Pick heathers with foliage and flower colors that appeal; a large garden centre or specialist nursery will have lots of options.

Some gardeners choose a range of different varieties, but filling a winter planter or window box with plants of Cyclamen and E. carnea of just one variety can also be very effective. Site winter heather in pots in full sun, and ensure that the compost does not dry out in summer.

Winter window box of heather

(Image credit: Alamy)

What to plant with winter heather

There are plenty of planting options if you're looking for the perfect partner for your winter flowering heather. Here are some of our favorites to add some extra color and interest to your winter landscaping ideas

  • Team your heathers with other plants for winter color like cyclamen; or interplant with crocuses, muscari and other dwarf bulbs in complementary colors – bulbs will be available in bud or in flower after Christmas.
  • For a dramatic display, heather looks great with Dogwood. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica' is neater in growth than most so it won't overwhelm your heather. The slender, pliable, bright-crimson shoots really stand out in winter. 
  • If you're also learning how to grow hellebores, they will be at their best in the height of winter (typically January and February in the UK and some parts of the US), so to pack your beds and borders with purple and pinkish hues try Helleborus hybridus 'Pretty Ellen'.

planted winter container with cyclamen coum, white heather (erica) and a wallflowerwinter

(Image credit: Alamy)

Where to buy winter heather

Due to their popularity winter flowering heathers are easily found from garden centers, supermarkets and online. However some of these can be dyed with chemicals. Graham Rice, Amateur Gardening's resident expert advises: 'These plants really do not need any artificial enhancement. There are hundreds of lovely heathers in a vast variety of foliage tints and flower colours. And you can have blooms – naturally, without dye – all the year round.'

Where to buy winter heather plants in the US:

Where to buy winter heather plants in the UK: