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One of the most popular species of heather in the UK is calluna vulgaris, which is also known as “Scottish heather” as it is commonly found in the Scottish Highlands. It can be recognised from its short and narrow, scale – like leaves and plentiful flowers growing along the length of the stems. Calluna heathers are perennial, evergreen plants that are known for their eye catching displays of summer and autumn colour from July through to November.
I have been growing a heather plant of this variety in the same pot for several years now. And I have noticed recently that it is not looking its best. The base of my heather appears to have a significant section of brown, dead, wood and growth on the upper parts of the plant is sporadic and uneven at best.
Encouraged by the fact that it was still at least actively growing, I set about trying to revive and save my plant. Read on to discover more about the steps I took to try and achieve this!
Actions that may help revive a Calluna heather include re potting into a larger pot with ericaceous compost and completing a prune of the plant. Calluna heathers need a sunny position and must not be left to completely dry out. Conversely, they do not thrive in waterlogged conditions so need to be in a well draining soil.
Firstly, Is it Definitely OK to Grow Heather in Pots?
Calluna heathers are relatively low maintenance and can thrive in pots as long as their basic requirements of enough growing space, correct soil, favourable location and adequate drainage are met. Ensuring that the right conditions are present and maintained can mean that heathers in pots can be a little more labour intensive in terms of upkeep compared to those planted directly in the ground.
And How Long do Heather Plants Live?
Heather plants can live for up to 40 years!
These are the 5 Steps I Took to Revive my Heather Plant
1. Remove the dead wood
Heathers need regular pruning if they are to maintain a tight and compact appearance.
My plant had not received regular pruning and as a result of this it had become “leggy” with a woody stem developing along with a noticeable amount of dead material at the base. If left too long, woody stems can get too large, and the plant too leggy, to recover its shape and appearance.
Luckily the woody area at the base of my plant was not too advanced, so I set about addressing it by either just breaking off the more brittle sections by hand and by pruning and cutting away other woody sections that were not essential to the plant.
2. Check the roots
As the plant had been in the same pot for several years I had my suspicions that it may have been pot bound, and I was right! I loosened the soil around the edge of the pot and slid the plant out to reveal a very restricted root system:
It was obvious that my heather needed repotting. Heathers need moisture and a root bound plant will not do well. The root ball was a fairly solid mass and the soil quality was low. I teased the roots apart using my fingers, freed off any loose soil and in the process ended up reducing the overall size of the root ball slightly.
Now it was time to repot…
3. Repot using ericaceous compost
When repotting, I chose a new pot that was bigger than the original so the plant had room to develop. My original pot had a diameter of 25cm whereas the replacement was 40cm.
The Calluna Vulgaris variety of heather requires slightly acidic growing conditions of around PH 4.5 to PH6.0. While heathers may still grow in non acidic (alkaline) soil, it is not guaranteed and any growth that does occur will likely be stunted – the plant certainly won’t thrive. You can test the PH of your soil by either using an electronic tester or a soil PH testing kit.
One of the advantages of using pots to grow heather is that it very easy to control the soil conditions. That said, I am not sure what soil it has been growing in the last few years but I suspect that it was standard multipurpose compost. When repotting my plant I used Ericaceous compost, which is specifically formulated for acid loving plants such as heathers.
Both soil PH testers and ericaceous compost are available on Amazon below:
Heathers need a freely draining soil and hate being waterlogged. To help drainage, when repotting, I placed a layer of grit at the bottom of the pot and made sure I chose a pot with plenty of drainage holes.
Despite my light pruning efforts, my plant was still quite woody and leggy at the base.
As I had reduced the root ball size and used a bigger pot, I had some space to play with so I replanted it a little deeper and also angled it slightly so as to cover the worst of the woody, leggy bits. This has helped to significantly improve the appearance of the plant and given time the buried leggy sections will hopefully begin to root.
Once repotted, the plant will need slightly more frequent watering initially, a couple of times a week, until it has had chance to re establish itself.
4. Reposition the pot to a brighter location
Now I had a repotted plant, the next thing was to make sure that it was positioned correctly. Heathers need sunlight and ideally prefer a sheltered position that is either in full sun or partial shade.
Heathers can weather the cold well but they do not like sustained, direct heat. They should be fine during the average UK summer day, but during any very hot spells we may have (?) this summer I am planning on moving the pot to a shadier position to protect it from the full strength and heat of the midday sun.
5. Provide ongoing care
Heathers need regular watering and it is best to use rainwater as this is naturally slightly acidic. Using tap water, especially if you live in a hardwater area, can be detrimental to the plant.
Watering directly at the base of the plant (and not over the top of it) will help reduce the risk of disease.
Do not allow your heather to dry out! If your heather is allowed to dry out completely it can cause the plant to die. That said, whilst the compost in the pot needs to be kept moist, it is also important to ensure good drainage and not to allow the plant to become waterlogged. Heathers do not like waterlogged conditions and too much moisture can result in problems such as root rot developing.
In addition to using a freely draining compost and choosing a pot with adequate drainage holes, one other way to help ensure good drainage is to raise the pot slightly off the ground using pot feet. I have used this method myself. Pot feet allow you to easily and evenly raise the pot and the feet that I used are not really noticeable when in place. The gap that they create is a great help when it comes to preventing the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot from becoming blocked up:
The pot feet that I used are available on Amazon below. I used 3 pot feet in total. You can vary the height of the pot by using more or less pot feet, depending on your requirements.
Calluna heathers need to be pruned annually otherwise you will end up with a woody, spindly plant. This is because once flowering has finished, and the flowers have fallen from the plant, bare stems will be left behind. It is best to prune Calluna heathers either immediately after flowering or during early spring before new growth appears.
Pruning heathers at the right time is beneficial as it will keep the plant under control, and promote bushiness in the plant by encourage new growth to form.
Following my repotting, the time was right for a light prune. I cut the foliage back to just before the spent flower heads (ie. just before where last year’s flowers began). It is especially important not to cut right back to bare wood as doing this means that regrowth will not happen.
– Winter protection
Callunas are hardy plants so do not require any specific winter protection in the UK. I left my heather out when the temperature dropped to -10 last winter and the frost, at least, does not appear to have adversely affected it.
Check Back for Further Updates!
I will continue to ensure that my heather has the correct moisture levels and does not become waterlogged. But after that, it is now just a case of waiting! Be sure to check back for further updates in the coming months as my heather (hopefully) begins to thrive!
If you are looking to add to your heather collection, why not check out these 18 potted Calluna heathers on Amazon!
If you are specifically looking for bright, winter colour for your garden, take a look at our article on painted heathers.