If you're a first time flower gardener and are looking for something easy to grow that will give you arms full of fresh cut flowers all summer long, look no further than the Zinnia family of annual flowers. If you're just looking to add color to your flower gardens or you want to attract butterflies to them, zinnias are unbeatable! Zinnias are so easy to grow; you can even start growing them from seed on your windowsill without much care. Zinnias are such a wonderful flower that they were chosen as the flower of the year in 2011 because of their wide selection of glorious colors, the unusual wide selection of heights that they grow and their ability to form new flower buds once you have picked their long flower stems.
The zinnia originated in Mexico--growing as a wild flower--and is still found there in sunny fields. It was not always the beautiful flower we grow in our gardens today. In fact, it was known to the Spanish as the flower of "sickness of the eye." Not a real compliment of a name, is it!? In the 18th century, collected seeds were brought to Europe, where well-known German Horticulturist Dr. Johann Gottfried Zinn worked on the new plant to improve its appearance but it took until the mid-19 th century to become a popular garden flower.
In the 1920, seed companies began to work very hard on this plant and soon their efforts paid off with introductions of new plants that grew from 6 inches to 4 feet tall. The color selection also grew to match the rainbow along with the size, shape and petal count of the flowers. In 1939, the zinnia became a household name with the development of a new variety called the dahlia-flowering zinnia developed by Ferry Morse Seed co. It was called "State Fair" and it had more resistance to disease problems, much more vigorous growing and the stems were stronger and better able to hold large flowers on the plant without falling over like past hybrids.
With all this work being done to the zinnia plant, it quickly grew to be as popular a flower to gardeners as the dahlia and the chrysanthemums were, because of the many flower forms. This flower once known as "sickness of the eye" was now one of the most popular flower in the world. The flower that had only a single row of petals in Mexico many years ago now has flowers with forms that are single, semi-double or double. But the shapes of the flowers are what gave them character from the button-types, beehive-types, the cactus-types with twisted petals, and dahlia-types with large flat flowers.
The zinnia plant has rich medium to dark green foliage that has a nice shine to it all season long. The leaf is oval with a point on its tip and, depending on the variety, will grow from 2 to 6 inches long. The leaves grow opposite each other on long stems making it perfect for cutting except for the dwarf varieties. The leaves also curl under at the edges giving them a rounded look--almost like basil foliage. The flower buds look like buttons and each bud is covered with green looking scales that are edged with black. The flower bud swells and opens slowly, exposing the flower petals in a tightly rolled ball on its top, and one by one the petals begin to emerge and create a wonderful daisy-like flower.
Plant zinnias in a garden that receives full sun all day long if possible, but they must get at least 6 hours of mid-day sunshine to bloom non-stop. Your soil should be rich and fertile so be sure to mix compost, animal manure or seaweed kelp before planting every year, the better the soil, the more flowers your plant will make for you. Your soil should also be well-drained especially when you're planting seedlings or they will develop root rot during wet and rainy periods. If your soil has clay in it, use garden gypsum when you condition the soil before planting, I recommend using gypsum because it will break down clay in just a couple of weeks and open up the soil to improve drainage. Plants do best in a soil near neutral so lime every other spring to control acidity in the soil. You can also use your wood ash from your wood stoves or fireplace or Lighting lime to sweeten up your garden soil.
Set out your seedlings when the weather has warmed up and the threat of frost is over. They will grow best when the soil is warm, so don't rush to set out seedlings, wait! The one word of advice I have for you is not to crowd the seedlings together when planting, as they will fill in quickly, and they need good air circulation to prevent disease problems like powdery mildew. Zinnias love the heat of summer and when the warm evening temperatures arrive, you can almost see them grow. I add Plant Thrive to all my seedlings to help stimulate root development; mycorrhizal fungi makes a big difference when planting.
Water the plants regularly to keep the soil moist, especially during the heat of summer. Always water early in the morning and never at night to prevent disease problems--like all garden plants. If your garden is flat, remove the nozzle from the hose and flood the soil with the hose rather than using a sprinkler. Fertilize with Dynamite timed-release pellet fertilizer when planting and repeat in early August or use a water-soluble plant food like Blooming and Rooting every two weeks from June to September.
Insect problems are minimal but if you have a bad year with a lot of Japanese beetles, they will cause some damage to the foliage, so spray foliage regularly with garden Eight from Bonide Lawn and Garden. When your zinnia plant start flowering you should be picking the flowers regularly as the more you cut the plant for flowers, the more they will develop new growth and make new branches filled with flowers. Their long stems make this plant the perfect plant for cutting. Cut the flowers when the flowers bud is half way opened and watch them mature in your vase of water. Buds still tight with no flower petals open will not open when cut so give them time to mature before cutting.
Cut zinnias will last 10 days or more in a vase of water as long as you keep them out of the direct sun. I worked at a farm stand during junior high school. Every morning early, the owner and I went out into the field to cut flowers for bouquets she made. We always brought a bucket filled with about 6 inches of water to put the flowers in when we cut them--and even in the heat of summer, they never wilted. She also let the flowers sit in the buckets for an hour or two to acclimate the flowers to the cutting--and they did much better when arranged.
The seed of the zinnia is large and easy to germinate, making it easy for children to grow for your garden. As the flowers fade on your plant, remove them along with 2 sets of foliage below them to encourage new shoots to develop on the plant faster. The taller growing varieties made large flowers and the plant got heavy so by July we placed a green pencil stake near the plant base and attached the plant to it with twist ties just in case we has strong summer thunder storms to prevent damage to the plant.
Here are my favorite varieties: 'Priulla' or 'Timberlines' for your front rows; they will grow 6 to 15 inches tall. Next my favorite--and sometimes hard to find--called "Cut and Come Again" (the name fits them well, the more you cut, the more they flower). They will grow 18 to 30 inches tall with 2-inch flowers. For tall growing varieties that will grow 3 to 5 feet tall, plant the 'State Fair' or 'California Giants' for 3 to 5 inch flowers. Zinnias come in all colors, except blue and white is hard to find when buying mixed colors. Common colors are yellow, orange, red, chartreuse, purple, lavender, lilac and white. With the new hybrids today, look for the many new two-tone varieties now available.
One last thing, zinnias will attract butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden, so plant them for additional excitement in your summer cut flower garden. You can also plant smaller growing varieties in your rock garden and be sure to plant some taller growing varieties in your perennial garden to replace the early flowering perennials and keep these gardens bright and colorful all summer long. Zinnias will also do very well in mixed plant planters of all types--as long as you water and feed regularly.
A bit more information for you about Zinnias: in January 2016 NASA announced that the Zinnia which had blossomed on the International Space Station was the first flower to grow in space, outside the Earth's biosphere. I saw the picture and it is wonderful.
Zinnias planted in the garden will attract hummingbirds and creates a defense against whiteflies and make a wonderful companion plant to keep some insects off other plants in your garden. So if you have a problem with whitefly in your garden plant some Zinnias this year for color and defense of your garden. Some of the newer varieties are a lot more resistant to Powdery Mildew disease. A common problem "WHEN" you water the garden, late in the day or at night, as the disease spores can stick to the wet foliage as they blow around the garden, so water early in the day so the foliage has time to dry off and try to prevent overhead watering of the garden. Fertilome lawn and garden has a great liquid fungicide called Liquid Systemic Fungicide 11 or F-Stop fungicide and Bonide has Infuse fungicide and Copper fungicide. These products can be found at your local garden center, Feed and Grain store and some hardware stores to control a multitude of problems in your flower garden.