Heucheras: Managing expectations


There’s been much gnashing of teeth over heucheras lately. Nan sang the Heuchera Blues over at Gardening Gone Wild recently, concluding, “A few years ago, I tried to change my expectations and think of the fantastic foliage heucheras as just really expensive annuals.”

I’ve changed my expectations, too.

I’ve always been skeptical of catalogs. But for some reason I suspended that disbelief for heucheras (and tiarellas and heucherellas) when I first discovered them. I thought that I could grow bushel-basket-sized plants just like the pictures in the catalogs. But I soon learned that Upstate New York is not the Pacific Northwest. I like to focus on plants that want to grow here. And heucheras are reluctant residents here.

Why? Probably the biggest factor is my heavy clay soil that heaves during our increasingly open and variable winters. Even where I’ve greatly improved the soil, it’s a late-winter ritual to look for heaved heucheras and shove them back into still frosty soil before their roots dry out. I’ve also got some in dry shade which they really don’t seem to like much during summer, since I don’t water ornamentals in the ground once established.

Unlike Nan, I don’t treat them like annuals. But now I look at them as woodland jewels — much the same way I think of minor bulbs. From time to time, I get down on my hands an knees, pluck off a few ratty leaves and behold what’s left and say, ‘That’s really cool.’

And I try not to grow them as specimen plants. They are usually surrounded by sweet woodruff, lamiums or other shade-loving groundcovers. That way, they don’t stick out like a sore thumb when they aren’t looking their best.

This is one of the few whose names I remember, H. ‘Monet’. Though it’s stayes small, it’s hung on for several years now. Looks better in person.

One year, I collected a bunch of seed from the half-dozen or so store-bought heucheras I had in a patch (most long-gone now) and planted the mixed seed in cells. I got a dozen or so plants that I planted in a shady patch I call ‘Craig’s Mix’ on the north side of the house where they usually struggle under the shade of a massive bleeding heart. These are my favorites.

More ‘Craig’s Mix’.

Still more ‘Craig’s Mix’.

If memory serves, this is Heucherella ‘Kimono’. The foliage reminds me of some geraniums.

I’ve also got many heucheras with purple and brownish foliage, though I don’t like them nearly as much as the green ones touched with silver and red.

So even if you can’t grow massive heucheras, do grow some. And get down on your knees and be thankful for what you get.

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4 thoughts on “Heucheras: Managing expectations”

  1. You raise some good points, Craig, and you have some beauties with “Craig’s Mix”. I remember having good luck with those H. americana types in my old garden (which was shady), but they don’t much like my current sun-baked site. I can see how mixing them with other plants helps them to blend in when they’re not in prime form. My problem is with the chartreuse, peachy, and other brightly colored hybrids; when they look good, they’re really good, but when they’re bad, they’re horrible. (And no, I don’t seriously use them as annuals anymore. I *might* spend $15 for a really cool tropical that I know I can keep from year to year, but not for a heuchera that’s almost guaranteed not to survive even a full season!)

  2. Nan: One thing I didn’t mention either: My recollection of Kutztown summers is that they are longer, hotter and often drier than what we face here in the north. Again — not coastal Oregon.

  3. I like the ‘Craig’s Mix’ the best, too. I never thought to save heuchera seeds and try that… but then again, I usually cut down the flowerstalks so I guess I never let them get to that point anyway. Maybe I need to rethink that.

    I don’t know that the heucheras are any happier in my dry, sandy soil than they are in your clay, btw. I don’t have any trouble with frost heaving, true, but mine look like the ones in your dry shade area all the time. I guess these are another of those plants that require “rich, well-drained soil.” HA. I’ll probably manage to achieve that by the time I’m too old to get down on my knees and appreciate the heucheras. :)

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