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Past Articles Library | Growing Bleeding Hearts

When I think of bleeding hearts I often reflect on love ones that have moved on in this life. If you are not familiar with this perennial, you may wonder where the common name comes from. The answer is simple, the flower. The flowers of the bleeding heart appear on a curved stem that almost seems to bend from the weight of the loss. If you look closely at the flower it may appear to be dripping something from the bottom of the heart-shape hence the name.

While there are several plants referred to as the bleeding heart, only Dicentra spectabilis is the true perennial by which the flowers appear to be bleeding. Having said that keep in mind that it can be hard to determine if you are actually getting the “true” bleeding heart when the plants are only sold by the common name.

Bleeding hearts are hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 2 through 9. They feel at home in a woodland setting or landscape design where the soil is moist but not wet and the light is partially sunny to dappled in its intensity. When it comes to the bleeding heart, the amount of sunlight can be a limiting factor. If the sun is too bright later on in the season then the plant will quickly disappear shortly after flowering. While it will reappear in the spring next year, the vanishing of the foliage will reduce the effect this perennial has in your overall landscape design. In other words, you will be left with a hole in your landscape where this plant used to be but not all is lost there is one technique that you can use to prevent this from happening. What is it? Well, it is simply and only requires you to use what nature gives you.

The technique I refer to is utilizing the growth habit of a deciduous tree. This type of tree loses its leaves in the fall. When the warmth of spring arrives, the tree will leaf-out again and will continue to fill out with leaves until the early summer breezes blow. This cycle works with the bleeding heart in the fact that when it leafs-out the deciduous tree is also beginning to produce foliage. During this time, the sun is not so intense that the leaves of the bleeding heart will burn. As the sunlight intensifies, so does the amount of leaves produced on the tree. This will, in turn, create shade for the bleeding heart and in doing so prevent the foliage from burning. In a nutshell, planting a bleeding heart near a deciduous tree is a great technique by which you can enjoy the beauty of the plant without the die-off of the foliage.

While it is the future of your bleeding heart to dieback as the weather warms, there are a few landscape design tricks that you can use to enhance the area where your plant is located. The first technique is to fill the space with complimentary plants or ones that bloom at the same time. This will add a flush of color and texture that will fill the space and when the blooms are spent and foliage dies back, the space does not miss it. If you like this landscape technique, consider planting lungwort, false forget-me-not, and hellebore.

On the other hand, the second approach is to plant something that will be coming up as your bleeding heart is declining. This technique is like opening that surprise gift for your landscape design. The viewer of the design will not know what to expect. Needs some ideas? Well, consider planting ferns and/or hostas for texture. When it comes to a flash of color, consider planting foam flowers, coral bells and/or monkshood.

When it comes to growing bleeding hearts, you have several choices to choose from. This perennial can be propagated through seeds, division, and cuttings. Plants are also easily obtained at your local plant nursery.  

The first propagation technique is planting bleeding heart seeds. This can be done as a direct seeding into the garden space in the fall or indoors. But, I will have to tell you the fall approach is a lot easier. Why, you may ask? Well, bleeding hearts need a time in the cold and planting in the fall will provide that compared to indoor planting. If you still want to start your seeds indoors, you will need to pull out the calendar and count back 12 to 16 weeks prior to your local frost free date. Once you have that you will know when to plant your seeds.

Now that you have the date, fill a cleaned and sterilized pot with a dampened, well draining potting medium. Sprinkle the seeds on top and gently push down with your hand. Place the container in a sealable plastic bag. Put the bag in the fridge and count ahead six to eight weeks. This will mimic the “cold” period of the outdoor environment. Once the time period has passed, remove the container from the fridge, take the pot out of the plastic bag and place on a windowsill. Keep the soil evenly moist. In about a week, you will see little green dots appear. Continue to care for the seedling until a week prior to your local frost free date. At this point, harden the seedlings off by slowly exposing them to the outdoor environment. After they have been hardened off, plant the seedlings in the chosen location.

The second approach to propagating this perennial is through division. Yes, this will require you to have the plant but the process is simple and begins as soon as the plant breaks ground. Once that has happened, dig a circle around the bleeding heart and lift up. If the plant does not come up, continue to follow the circle you have created but this time go deeper. Repeat this process until the root ball comes out of the ground. At this point, you can cut or tear the root ball into the number of divisions you desire. Once that is done, place the division in the chosen garden space.

The third way of propagating the bleeding heart is through stem cuttings. This can be a bit tricky and in doing so, this technique will not be covered.

When it comes to planting your bleeding heart plant, the process begins by digging a hole that is the same depth as the plant and twice the width. Mix in a large amount of seasoned organic material into the removed soil. Test the hole before removing the plant from its container. If the hole is the correct size, gently remove the plant from the pot, tease the roots with the fingers, and place in the hole. Fill in the hole with the removed soil and compost mixture. Water in the area and add more soil as needed.

Bleeding hearts are easy to grow and really do not need much fuss. You only need to deadhead the flowers if you do not want additional plants. As the foliage begins to dieback, you can cut it back to ground level. While bleeding hearts are not big feeders when it comes to fertilizing, they do require a nice layer of leaf mold in the fall.

Finally, due to its woodland-like environment requirement, the bleeding heart will need to be watered especially during dry times but make sure the soil is evenly moist and not wet. A too wet soil will cause root rot, which will kill this heart-warming perennial.


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