Columnist on zinnias: Something old is new again

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Stephanie Hudak

Stephanie Hudak

By Stephanie Hudak

Many years ago, after leaving the military, my husband and I moved into our first “home,” a duplex owned by an elderly Hungarian bachelor who maintained his small yard with pride. Along the entire side of the driveway he grew tulips in the spring and zinnias in the summer. (I am embarrassed to say that my backing up skills were none too good then and many times I “rearranged” those flowers.) Being a frugal guy he replanted the tulip bulbs each year and collected the seeds of the zinnias for the next season. The zinnias produced a dense riot of color all summer long and the butterflies were super happy.

Columnist Stephanie Hudak's zinnias at the vacant Main St. gas station. photo by stephanie hudak

Columnist Stephanie Hudak’s zinnias at the vacant Main St. gas station. photo by stephanie hudak

When Bruce Gilbert still owned the Madison Hardware he planted a bed of zinnias beside the front door; combined with a ‘Miss Huff’ lantana and the ‘Confederate Rose’ hibiscus, this created a perfect “old timey” atmosphere. And if you look around town, you will see that the city has planted beds of zinnias here and there, brightening up otherwise forgotten beds on the side streets. My own contribution this year can be found in the four large containers in front of the vacant gas station on North Main Street, but they are “new” zinnias, and that is the point of this week’s column.

While those old zinnias that my landlord planted were colorful and bloomed all summer, the leaves and stems were always covered in that powdery white residue– the hallmark of the fungal disease, powdery mildew. The flowers will continue to bloom in spite of this disease, but it doesn’t make for pretty in the garden so it is best to plant disease-resistant flowers in front of them. But there is good news.  New cultivars are being created every year that not only come in varying heights with a wide range of colors and petal arrangements, they are also powdery mildew resistant.

You know that I always have to share some scientific stuff with you, so here it comes. Good ole Carl Linnaeus named the genus Zinnia after Dr. Johann Gottfried Zinn, a mid-18th century anatomist and director of the botanical garden at the University of Gottingen in Germany, who first described the plant scientifically. Most zinnia species are native to Mexico but a few come from Central and South America, along with some from the American Southwest, which tells you they like it hot and dry.
There isn’t enough space here to list all the great new cultivars available but I have to mention a few to get you excited about putting some of these butterfly magnets in your yard. The cultivar that I used in those big containers is a hybrid called ‘Profusion,’ which comes in apricot, orange, reddish-rose and white. They grow 12-18 inches tall with a spread of 16-24 inches, holding two-inch semi-double flowers. Two new Profusion strains with double-flowers have recently been introduced – ‘Double Deep Salmon and Double Hot Cherry.’ All in the Profusion line are heat, cold- and humidity-tolerant and are perfect for the front of a border or in containers. Those at the gas station are doing great. Another small zinnia is Zinnia marylandica ‘Zahara.’ It comes in single and double strains with very vibrant colors. For bigger plants check out ‘Zowie’ which grows 24-36 inches tall; Burpee’s ‘Big Tetra Mix’ at 30 inches; or Park’s ‘Picks Mix’ at a whopping 40-50 inches.

For smaller areas, pots or window boxes, check out the button zinnias. Some of the plants can grow up to 16-24 inches but the flowers are a diminutive 1-2 inches. For the back of the border look for ‘Sunbow Mix.’ They get tall but the double flowers come in a wide array of colors; and for pots or window boxes check out ‘Zinnita Mix’, which only gets 6-8 inches tall and wide.

You can find small pots of zinnias at the nursery but seed sowing is the surest way to get the best plants in the widest variety that will fit your gardening needs. Zinnias thrive in full sun on well-warmed, well-drained and well-fertilized soil. Notice I said “thrive.” Zinnias can grow with neglect, but they will be awesome with just a little TLC. Finished compost or well-rotted manure added to a prepared bed is about all you need to do, unless you have heavy soil, in which case you should add some grit or shale to break it up. Remember, we said that zinnias like to be well-drained – too much water will encourage fungal diseases.

If you want to avoid that ugly mildew then seek out the resistant varieties – Profusion, Zahara and Pinwheel or the Mexican zinnia (Zinnia haageana). Zinnias are wonderful cut flowers and ‘Benary’s Giants’ disease resistant plants will give you both flowers and good-looking foliage for your arrangements. Cutting the flowers often will ensure a long, full season of blooms. There are so many zinnia options that every garden should have some in it. Get your favorite young person and have them help you plant the seeds so they can feel the satisfaction of seeing not only the beautiful flowers but the butterflies that will come to visit them.

Quote of the day: “When weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant.” –Author Unknown

My thanks to Rick Crown for giving me one of those special hugs last week. They really work… I carried that good feeling with me all day. Make someone feel good today!

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