Heather heaven: plant a winter mini meadow

by Rhiannon James

From the vast Olympic Park to the tiniest balcony planter, meadows have bloomed with brilliance everywhere this year. But now the marigolds and cornflowers have faded, where are we to get our vibrantly-flowery fix? One answer is to look to another spectacular wild landscape for inspiration. Moors and heaths come to life with a flush of flowering heathers in late summer and with a small selection of plants, you can get the same richly-coloured effect in a container through the autumn and winter and into the spring.

Mini moorlands have other benefits too: heathers are adapted to survive the harsh, windy conditions on heaths, meaning life on a balcony or roof terrace should prove a doddle and they’re also an important source of nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies and other insects, especially when there are few other flowers about.

Things you’ll need

1. A large container, we’ve used an old tin bath. If you’re using a metal planter, you’ll also need cardboard or bubble wrap to line the inside to stop the plants’ roots getting too hot in the summer.

2. Ericaceous compost – some heathers will tolerate more alkaline conditions but most prefer acid soil.

3. Horticultural grit

4. Slow-release ericaceous fertiliser

5. A selection of heathers: we’ve used ling (Calluna vulgaris) because this is a common heather on moorlands but we’ve mixed in a winter-flowering species called Erica x darleyensis (try Erica carnea as an alternative), so the container will keep blooming into the spring. If you wanted to, and the container was big enough, you could also include bell heather (Erica cinerea), another common species in the wild which flowers in the summer, for an all-year-round display.

6. An evergreen grass to complete the look and add a different texture and form – we’ve used Festuca glauca. Grasses expert Neil Lucas from Knoll Gardens says: “You could also consider Carex testacea or ‘Evergold’, for example, which gradually take on a wonderful semi-drooping habit that greatly enhances the look of the container overall. Two native evergreens are Carex divulsa and Carex remota both of which are green-foliaged but have great character and are tough and long-lived.”

7. A mulch to cover the top of the compost – we’ve used slate chippings.


1. It’s worth giving old containers a clean before planting and you’ll also need to punch some holes into the base for drainage.

2. Then, if your planter is metal, line the inside with cardboard, bubble wrap or other insulation to stop the plants’ roots ‘cooking’ in the summer.

3. If your container is large, it’s worth getting it in position at this stage, before you fill it with compost. Heathers like full sun so put your planter in the brightest spot you can.

4. Fill your container with compost up the point where you’re ready to start planting, firming it in as you go. You can mix in some horticultural grit to improve drainage and some slow-release fertiliser as you fill.

5. Arrange your plants while they’re still in their pots until you get look you’re happy with. If you want to maximise the container’s immediate impact and perhaps replant the heathers elsewhere in the spring, you should pack everything in quite close together. If you’re creating a more permanent display, leave bigger gaps to give the heathers room to grow.

6. Take the plants out of their pots and fill around with compost (to make watering easier, just make sure there’s a small gap between the compost and the top of the container). Then water the plants in well.

7. Finish with a mulch.

8. This container is pretty low maintenance but the heathers will need to be pruned, usually once a year, to keep them in shape. On the moors, heathers are sometimes regenerated by setting fire to them but this is not recommended on a balcony! The flowering spikes on the Calluna should be pruned back to the plant in February or March and Erica x darleyensis can just be given a trim when they finish flowering.

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