My mother is convinced that I would not have had a little sister if it weren’t for zinnias. Now before your mind goes wandering to some hot and steamy romantic place that it shouldn’t, let me explain that my little sister was adopted. If you have ever adopted a child you know that it is an arduous process that requires lots of paper work, background checks and home visits. My parent’s desperately wanted another child. However, due to complications caused by my birth, another child was a dream that could only come true for them with the help of an adoption agency. Since my mother wanted this child so much, she always worked very hard to make the best impression possible when the agency folks came to visit. These visits always warranted my mother’s best; her best dishes, her best cut work table cloth (hand made by my grand mother), her sweetest tea and a large bouquet of zinnias cut from her yard.
My parents were lucky enough to get my sister in record time and with the absolute minimum of fuss. My mom still swears that their process went so smoothly because the agent loved her tea parties so much. I have tried to tell her many times that the hassle free adoption probably had more to do with the fact that she and my dad were pretty good people that lived a very good life. However, she refuses to hear it. To her, she got her daughter because of her Southern charm and a big bunch of zinnias.
I can honestly say that I have never had a garden without zinnias. They are beautiful, prolific, resilient and resistant. They come in a million different colors and their upright stalks with their alternating leaves make them so easy to cut and strip for the vase. They look so good in the beds around my house that not a single bee, moth, wasp or butterfly can get past them. Yes, I truly love zinnias.
This year, I grew Benary’s Giant. Benary’s Giant are the flowers the pros grow. My seeds were a gift from my good friend Kim Haven at Billabong Fresh Cut Flower Farm in Hempstead. While I was a generic zinnia lover before, Kim’s seeds have made me a zinnia connisoer. The Benary’s Giants were so outstanding, I don’t think I will ever grow another variety.
Growing Zinnias - Each spring I am amazed to see flats of zinnia starts for sale at the nurseries. While there is nothing wrong with this, zinnias are so easy to grow from seed that it seems a waste to spend so much on so few plants. One pack of seeds properly planted will yield many more flowers than a whole flat of starts from the big box.
The zinnias that most of us grow are cultivars of the species Zinnia elegans. While there are varieties that grow all over the world, Zinnia elegans originated in Central America and Mexico. Because of this, they love the full sun and hot temperatures found here in the South.
To start your zinnias, plant the seeds after the soil has warmed up to around 70 degrees. For me, here in Zone 9, that usually happens by April 15. (***See sidebar at the end of the article). Cover lightly with no more than a quarter inch of soil. Zinnias need some light to germinate so if you plant them too deep you won’t get any sprouts. For best results, plant in a loose soil that has been well worked with organic matter. To plant my seeds, I drag a rake over the area I want to plant in and then sow the seeds in a broadcast manner. After they are down, I drag the rake once in the opposite direction. I then use a spray nozzel to lightly water in the seeds. For the first couple of weeks I water enough to keep the soil moist but not soggy.
If the soil is warm enough, your first sprouts should appear in about 7 days. Once they are up let them grow to about 3″. Thin your sprouts to about 6″ for smaller varieties and 12″ for the bigger varieties like Benary’s Giant. At this point you can begin to apply the standard 1″ of water every five days or so. If the weather cooperates, you can have your first sprouts about 40 days after germination. If you dead head regularly and add a mid-season application of compost, you can keep your zinnias blooming until the first frost.
Zinnias are amazingly resilient flowers. They can take some over watering and they can withstand some periods of drought. They are not bothered by many pests. However, some of the older varieties are very receptive to mildew infestation. Mildew will cause your leaves to brown and curl and can eventually kill the plant. The best way to avoid this is to water from below with drip lines or soaker hoses. If you have to water from above, water in the morning so the sun can thouroughly dry the foliage during the day. If you do all of this and still have mildew problems, look for a newer vaiety. Many of these have been breed for mildew resistance.
Cutting Zinnias - I grow A LOT of zinnias every year. I grow them to use as cut flowers in my house. Heck, this year I even got to use them in my daughters wedding arrangements and bouquets. With their tough stems and long upright stalks, zinnias make great cut flowers for the home gardener. To extend their vase life, cut your flowers in the early morning. Cut above a node to encourage branching and more blooms. Once you cut the flower, grasp it with your thumb and forefinger right under the flower head. Then, grasp the stalk with your other hand and pull straight down to remove all of the leaves. Once the stems are stripped, drop them immediately into bucket full of fresh, clean water. Finally, transfer to a vase with the proper amount of flower food.
Last night we cut the last of my zinnias. They went into a very special bouquet for my mother-in-law. You see, today is her birthday. Unfortunately, she is in the final stages of Alzhiemer’s and she will most likely not have her best birthday ever. Regardless, my wife went out into our garden last night and cut zinnias, cockscomb and roses and made her a spectacular bouquet. While the bouquet was very beautiful, it was bittersweet on many levels. First, as sick as MiMi is, we all know that there is a very good chance that we may never get to make another of these late fall bouquets for her. On a far less tragic note, the bouquet required us to cut the last of our remaining zinnias. While I know that I will have many more zinnias in the spring, the cutting of the last zinnia of fall is a very real reminder to me that what we call cold weather in Texas is on the way.
(Sidebar: “Plant after the soil has warmed to 70 degrees” is a pharase that is used in the planting guides for a lot of flowers. What that really means is “for the fastest and most uniform germination, plant when …” In reality zinnias and many other flower seeds can be planted whenever. The seeds will lay dormant in the ground until some environmental factor like moisture or day length tells them to grow. If you want to test this, let a zinnia (or cockscomb, hollyhock, cleome, larkspur or whatever) go to seed. Crumple the dry seed head and let the seeds fall to the ground. Then walk away. In early April, plant some of the same type of seeds in another part of your garden. I will bet you a dollar to a donut that the seeds that were “naturally planted” at the end of their season will produce sprouts before you ever get you April seeds in the ground.)