Ah, the romance of heather. Can't shake those images of the fuzzy mounds of heather blooming on the Scottish moors ... I never thought of heather as a plant for Philadelphia gardeners, but Paul and Jane Murphy, owners of Hickey Hill Heath & Heather near Oxford, in rural southern Chester County, think - know - otherwise.
I spent a very pleasant couple of hours with these folks last week, on another hot, humid and rain-threatening day, discussing the joys and pitfalls of heath and heather, which are different genuses in the same family and so alike I couldn't figure out which was which. Generally, though, a lot of heath are winter-bloomers and more heather bloom in summer.
(That sounds strange, doesn't it - one plus one heather equals two heather.)
Paul and Jane retired in 2006 and, already heather-obsessed, decided to open their nursery. Couldn't be that much work, could it? We had a good laugh over that one. They sell only what they propagate and the goal of propagating is to find varieties that can deal with the hot summers and wilting humidity of the mid-Atlantic region. The key to all this, they say, is to ignore the planting advice on most tags and in heather books that says: Plant in full sun.
No. Full sun is the ticket north of New York City. It even works in the Poconos. But not here. Heath and heather here in partial shade, or morning sun followed by dappled shade. The Murphys know this from trial and error, from visiting heather gardens (none in the area), and attending heather conferences.
The biggest obstacle to convincing gardeners to buy more heather is that they've either had a bad experience with it or know a gardener who has. The stuff dies! Paul and Jane insist it's because we've been brainwashed about full sun. Ignore that, plant in well-draining, acidic soil - next to azaleas, rhodies or blueberries, dwarf conifers, Japanese maples or witch hazels - and you'll be chasing Heathcliff over the moors in no time. If he's your type.