I have a huge bleeding heart plant that has become like a bush (5 feet wide and 4 feet tall). It is beautiful in May and June, begins to fade in July, and in August becomes a large, ugly, dead-looking hole in my perennial garden. How do I handle this mostly beautiful plant? When can I cut it back, and what should I plant near it? It is in a large (30 feet by 10 feet), sunny, and well-drained area. T.S. Hartland
Your large bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) begins to fade and droop by the end of June because nature’s thermostat is rising quickly. Despising heat, Dicentra enters its dormant phase. By having it in a sunny area, you are pushing its tolerance of heat and light. That is why it melts out by the end of June. It does not hurt to cut back the dilapidated foliage to within a few inches of the ground. These showy bleeding hearts often cast seed. So you may find little sprouts appearing in late summer to early fall. Cutting back the large, fading foliage will allow light and air to feed these seedlings and you will have more plants for next season.
Since your bleeding heart has exited center stage, the object is to add plant material around it not only for camouflage, but to extend the season of color and interest into winter. As you research perennials and other plants, make a list of their bloom times and blossom colors, their plant height at maturity, and how long they hold their foliage. Layout a planting diagram that varies the height and bloom interest. You know the size of the garden bed. Use the information given about the perennials to help you lay out a pleasing pattern with enough room for their growth. Arrange tall plants to the back of the bed and shorter ones to the foreground. Be sure to consider clusters of summer-blooming bulbs and larger shrubby perennials, such as blue mist shrub (Caryopteris) and St. John’s wort (Hypericum) that add presence, but not bulk.
Ornamental grasses offer a long-term reward in the perennial garden with their graceful forms. The plumes of maiden grass (Miscanthus) and feather reed grass (Calamagrostis) really make a statement from mid-August all through the long winter months.
Consider working a small ornamental tree such as a witch hazel into your arrangement, or a small woody shrub like dwarf fothergilla. These provide fall and winter interest long after all the perennials have died back. They also provide natural “scaffolding” to a garden when snow is the only bloom around. They anchor the beauty of the perennials and give them a great backdrop.