How to Grow Heuchera, AKA Coral Bells, Organically

Variety of coral bells (Heuchera sanguinea), overhead view, close-up
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For a low-growing plant with incredible foliage, it’s hard to beat heuchera. When you add pretty, delicate blooms and the fact that some heucheras are evergreen, what you end up with is a “must-have” plant.

There are nearly 300 known varieties of heuchera (a North American native), also called “coral bells” or “alum root.” In general, heucheras grow to about eighteen inches tall (not counting the flower spikes) and around eighteen inches wide.

Their blooms grow on spikes of delicate “bells” in shades of red, pink, white, and purple, generally blooming for four to eight weeks in late spring through early summer. Recent varieties have made the blooms more prominent. But it’s the foliage that makes heuchera a winner. Purple, black, red, orange, brown, silver, chartreuse-you name it, you can most likely find a heuchera in that color.

Planting Heuchera

Heuchera prefers part shade, although some cultivars do better in full sun. They like soil that is average to rich fertility, moist, and well-drained. Heavy soils can be amended at planting time by incorporating compost or leaf mold into the soil from the planting hole. Heucheras are great plants for either edging a bed or using a group as a focal point. They suffer from very few pests and diseases, but powdery mildew can be a problem. Be sure to give them some room so they will get good air circulation.

Heucheras tend to be shallow-rooted, and will heave in the winter if there is a lot of freeze/thaw action. To prevent them from heaving, give them a good, three-inch layer of mulch in late fall.

Caring for Heuchera

Since heuchera prefer moist conditions, be sure to water in hot, dry weather, giving the plant about one inch of water per week.

They can be fertilized with a balanced organic fertilizer in early spring, but even better would be to give the plants a side dressing of compost or composted manure as they are just starting to come up. Divide plants every three years or so, or when you notice that the stem is looking woody or blooming diminishes. Mulch heucheras in the fall to prevent heaving, but don’t put the mulch up against the crown of the plant, or it will rot. Pull the mulch back from the crown two to three inches. Deadhead after the blooms fade to promote re-bloom.

Propagating Heuchera

There are three main ways heuchera can be propagated: seed, division, and leaf-bud cuttings.

Seed: The thing to note when trying to propagate from seed is that cultivars will not come true from seed-only species will. So, for example, Heuchera americana is a species heuchera that will grow true from seed. Heuchera americana ‘Chocolate Veil’ is a cultivar of H. americana, and will not grow true from seed. To grow from seed, the most important step is to stratify the seeds, meaning that the seeds are stored in the cold (a refrigerator will do) for at least six weeks. After stratifying, sow the tiny seeds on top of your seed starting medium, as seeds require light to germinate.

They will germinate fairly quickly. Care for them as you would any other plant grown from seed, including hardening them off after danger of frost. Seedling heucheras can then be planted in their desired location in the garden, or placed in a nursery bed for a growing season until they reach a larger size.

Division: Divide heuchera as you would any other perennial. Dig the plant out of the ground and cut the root mass into pieces with a shovel or knife. Replant divisions with the crown at the soil level. This can be done every two to three years to keep the plants vigorous.

Leaf-bud Cuttings: Leaf-bud cuttings are a type of cutting that consists of a few leaves, but most importantly, of a section of the stem from the main plant. This is important because only the main stem has growth buds on it, which is where foliage will grow from.

Take leaf-bud cuttings of heuchera any time during the growing season, although spring is best because it allows the parent plant plenty of time to recover before winter. Dip the cutting in rooting hormone, and place it in either seed-starting mix or a 50/50 mix of peat and perlite. Keep it moist, cover the cuttings with a plastic bag (supported so it doesn’t come into contact with the leaves) and place it in a shady location. Once you have roots, you can plant it out in your garden or into a nursery bed.

Heucheras provide plenty of interest and color. In addition to planting them directly in the garden, consider adding them to containers on your porch or patio. They will give you plenty of easy-care color all season long.