Showy, eye-catching bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis or Lamprocapnos spectabilis) earned their common name from the pendulous, heart-shaped flowers that line their arching stems. They form tidy clumps that seldom need to be divided, although division is an effective way to propagate new plants. Bleeding hearts have a delicate, brittle root system that breaks easily and recovers slowly, so divide them only if no other option is available.
Climate and Timing
Bleeding hearts grow best in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 9. They respond best to spring division in colder climates at the lower end of their range and fall division in warmer climates with mild, rainy winters.
- Divide in spring as soon as the soil warms slightly and the plant shows new growth.
- Divide in fall after the foliage turns yellow and dies back.
Site Selection and Preparation
Bleeding hearts must be planted immediately after division to minimize stress. Selecting and preparing their planting site before lifting the plant will help streamline the process and prevent the divisions from drying out. Choose a planting site with:
- Part shade or full shade. Dappled sunlight is fine, but do not plant them in areas with blazing midday sun.
- Organically rich, fast-draining soil. Avoid sandy or clayey soils, as well as areas with very wet winter soil and dry summer soil.
- Shelter from strong winds. Plant them in a bed with shrubs or structures sheltering them from wind, or on a slight slope that faces away from prevailing wind.
- Room to accommodate their mature size. Bleeding hearts reach a mature height of 2 to 3 feet with a 1 1/2- to 2-foot spread.
Prepare the site by thinning out any overhanging branches to improve air circulation, but take care not to remove so much that shade disappears. Slightly sandy loam soil can be improved with the addition of a 3-inch layer of compost worked into the top 10 inches of soil. Water the site to a 12-inch depth a couple of hours before transplanting your divisions.
Dividing Bleeding Hearts
Minimizing stress is the top priority when dividing bleeding hearts. Watering the plant's soil 12 to 15 inches deep a day or two before dividing will help hydrate and plump up the roots, which will help minimize breakage. Ideally, divide the plant on a cool, cloudy morning a day or two before a rain shower is in the forecast. Have someone on hand to help lift the plant and heavy soil from the hole.
Sanitize your pruning shears before using them. Soak the blades in a solution of half rubbing alcohol and half water for five minutes, then rinse and wipe them dry.
Cut back the entire bleeding hearts plant to 6 inches. Reducing the foliage will help limit moisture loss, which will help the plant survive the division process. Wear gloves when working with bleeding hearts plants to prevent skin irritation.
Measure out 4 to 6 inches around the plant and scratch a circular line around the base of the plant to use as a guideline for digging. Scratch the line in the soil using a stick or other tool. For larger plants, make the circle 6 to 8 inches, just in case.
Dig around along the guideline using a sharp, pointed garden spade. Dig straight down to at least a 12-inch depth to gather up as many roots as possible. Work the blade underneath the rootball, moving around the perimeter of the plant to dislodge it from every angle.
Lift the bleeding hearts plant from the ground and move it to a shady spot. Have someone help you as the plant and soil will be heavy. Fill in the hole left by the plant with soil from the site. Tamp it down and add more soil if an indentation still remains.
Hose off the rootball to reveal the roots. Divide the plant into 4- to 6-inch portions, each with an equal share of roots and shoots. Gently separate the divisions, teasing the roots apart and cutting the roots with your sanitized pruning shears, where necessary. Trim off any dead of damaged portion of the roots. Handle the roots with care as bleeding heart roots are very brittle.
Move the bleeding hearts divisions to the planting site immediately. Dig a planting hole for each division, spacing them 2 to 3 feet apart depending on the mature size of the cultivar. Make the hole twice the diameter of the rootball and deep enough so the base of the stems is 1 inch below the surface.
Settle the bleeding hearts divisions into their planting holes, spreading out the roots along the bottom. Backfill the hole until the roots are completely covered with soil. Water to settle the soil, then add additional soil if it settles too much.
Dissolve 1/2 cup of water soluble, 10-10-10 fertilizer in 1 gallon of water. Water each division with 1/2 cup of the solution, taking care not to splash it on the stems. Spread a 2-inch layer of mulch between the divisions after feeding, leaving a 3-inch gap between the mulch and the base of the stems.
Bleeding hearts need little hands-on care during the establishment phase apart from regular watering. Provide 1 inch of water each week during the summer months, but only if no rain has fallen for several days. Too much water is just as problematic as too little, so let the soil's surface dry out slightly before watering again. Replace the mulch the following spring, applying a dose of the same 10-10-10 fertilizer used at planting.