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Published June 07 2013

Thought Gardens: Passion for gardening doesn’t always involve digging in the dirt

There exists an entire realm of horticulture that has no name. It’s practiced by many of us, yet I have never heard it acknowledged or described. Apartment dwellers, seniors, children, men and women can all participate.

Let’s call it “thought gardening.” Our desire to grow things is not limited to actual planting. We enjoy reading about gardening, talking about it, learning, thinking about new flowers and landscapes, and reminiscing about past plantings.

We enjoy touring other people’s yards, botanical gardens and arboretums. We imagine how our own yard might look someday. All this enjoyment without digging a shovelful of soil.

Thought gardening is good gardening. Sometimes it’s the only kind available. As we age we can participate with gardening memories. People without yards can enjoy thought gardening as they read, study and enjoy plantings around the community.

Many of us combine thought gardening with active gardening.

So let’s do some thought gardening as we discuss lilacs, peonies, bleeding hearts, rhubarb and asparagus, which are all highly visible now.


There are many great species, but my favorite is still the old-fashioned lavender common lilac. Its “French hybrid” cultivars with different shades of maroon, purple, double and white are nice. For smaller-spaced yards, they don’t “sucker” and spread.

Lilacs do not tolerate wet feet. If planted along the rear lot boundary, drainage must be good, and sump pump water discharged elsewhere during wet periods.

Pruning is best done right after bloom. Next year’s flower buds are set during the last half of summer. Early spring pruning removes flower buds.

Old-fashioned lilacs can be dug and moved when dormant. Early spring is best. This can be important for those wanting to perpetuate lilacs from the homes and farmsteads of ancestors.


I won’t enter the heated pronunciation debate of “PEE-uh-nee” or “pee-OH-nee.” Webster prefers the former. Either way it is one of our longest-lived perennials.

Potted or packaged, peonies can be planted now. To divide an established peony, wait until September. Remember our perennial dividing rule: Dig and divide during the season furthest from bloom time.

Planting depth is crucial. Find the top bud or “eye,” and plant no deeper than two inches below soil surface. Deep planting can hinder bloom.

During the first two growing seasons, any flower buds should be removed to conserve the plant’s energy. After three or four years the peony should be in nice bloom.

Peonies prefer full sun. As trees grow and cast increased shade, peonies that once bloomed well might now be receiving too much shade. Other causes of bloom failure include botrytis blight, deep planting and a poorly-adapted variety.

Bleeding Heart

We are not referring to an overly sympathetic human, but rather Dicentra spectabilis. The common name is very descriptive of the bloom, which occurs in late May and early June.

Shade or part-shade is preferred. Following bloom, the foliage begins to turn yellow and browns completely by early July. Do not remove the foliage until then. I like to plant annuals close by to fill the gap for the remaining season.

Potted or packaged plants may be planted in spring and early summer, but digging, dividing or moving should wait until September.


I think our North Dakota Legislature should spend time next session amending our constitution to make rhubarb mandatory. There is something solid and reassuring about having rhubarb on your property.

I am lucky to have inherited one of the deep red varieties from my mother, who inherited it from hers. Grandma ordered it back in the 1930s from Gurney’s Catalog.

Rhubarb plants are sending up flower stalks now. Cut them off so they don’t reduce the plant’s vigor. Dig and divide rhubarb every four or five years to keep in prime condition. September is best, but early spring will work before much growth occurs. Dig down to divide the crown, leaving a section with four or five buds undisturbed in place. The rest can be used to start new plantings.


Plant bare-root or potted plants by early summer. Asparagus prefers sandy or loam soil. Amend heavy clay soils with organic material. In heavy soil, plant the crown three to four inches deep and 18 inches apart. In sandy soil, plant five to six inches deep.

Asparagus can be harvested by the third season. Stop harvest by late June to allow the fern-like tops to develop. Tops should remain over winter to catch snow for added protection. Remove in spring.

Asparagus beds can last for decades without the need for division. Weed control is a challenge as the years progress.

Don’t worry if you don’t rush out and divide something after reading “Growing Together.” The time we spend together is thought gardening, and you’ll have the information for future use.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at donkinzler@msn.com.