Why Zinnias Are Perfect Companions in the Vegetable Garden

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Butterfly on a zinnia

My father called them "old maids," just like his mother before him, and as a child I recall puzzling over what zinnias had in common with my favorite teachers at school. He planted great swaths of zinnias in any available space, and it often became my job to clip off the spent blossoms and gather the best ones for bouquets.

And so I came into my gardening life with a natural love for zinnias, which are perhaps the only annual flower I plant in my vegetable garden year after year. Growing zinnias on the same schedule as tomatoes, I plant zinnias for myself, the bees, and for the monarch butterflies that migrate south in the fall. Indeed, the parent species of modern zinnias were found in southwestern Mexico, only a few hundred miles from the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, where millions of monarch butterflies spend the winter. When the monarchs pass through my garden in late September, they recognize the zinnias instantly, and always stop for a few sips of nectar.

Note that Europe's most famous migratory butterfly, the painted lady, can be lured into gardens with zinnias and many other nectar-bearing flowers during the summer, but southbound migrants fly so high (at about 500 meters) that refreshment stops are impractical.

Butterfly on a zinnia

Great Garden Zinnias

Over the last thirty years, dozens of new zinnia varieties have been introduced, so that one can choose between compact, powdery mildew-resistant 'Profusion' zinnias, which form low cushions of color, mid-size varieties like 'Cut and Come Again', which were bred in France in the 1880's, or tall, large flowered varieties like 'State Fair' and 'Benary Giant', which make great cut flowers. Many bug and butterfly watchers have observed that low-growing zinnias are less attractive than taller varieties, and single-flowered strains are preferred over doubles. Two variety names - Whirligig and Zowie – are often named as butterfly favorites by gardeners; a study from the University of Kentucky found that the heirloom 'Lilliput' variety attracted twice as many butterflies as 'Oklahoma' and 'State Fair'.

Consider your interior décor when choosing zinnias, because you can make endless bouquets with the newly opened blossoms. For example, soft yellow is easy to mix and match in bouquets, but orange can present a challenge. Growing zinnias in mixed colors gives you plenty of flexibility, and you can save seeds from varieties you especially like.

Zinnias and celosia

Growing Garden Zinnias

Semi-tropical zinnias need warm conditions to grow well, so I wait until late spring to start seeds indoors. Seed germination is usually fast and sure, but then the seedlings need plenty of light to keep them happy. I grow my zinnia seedlings alongside tomato and pepper seedlings, which have similar preferences for warm temperatures and intense light.

Zinnias need fertile soil in full sun, and varieties that grow more than 24 inches (60 cm) tall benefit from staking. Unstaked plants that are blown over by storms will continue to produce flowers, but the stems will be short and curved, and more difficult to use in arrangements.

Most zinnias are susceptible to powdery mildew, which is most severe on tired old plants. To make sure I have plants blooming when the monarch butterflies come in fall, I start more zinnia seeds in early summer.

Zinnias

To save zinnia seeds for replanting, simply collect a few blossoms that are at least halfway brown, and let them dry in a paper bag until they shatter. You will find dark, pointed seeds attached to the bases of outer petals, with more coming along in the center. When allowed to dry until hard and almost crisp and stored under good conditions, zinnia seeds will stay viable for five years or more.

Finally, petals snipped from organically grown zinnias are edible. They have little flavor, but make great color accents whether you use them to dress up a serving tray or add interest to a pitcher of herb tea – a trick my country grandmother might have tried with some of her old maids, if only she had known it was possible.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Comments

 
"As a small child I would often sit in my grandmother's flower bed; happily stuffing my mouth full of zinnia petals. I have no idea what first compelled me to do this, although my grandfather often said he believed I had acquired a taste for them while dining with the fairies that lived under a nearby willow tree! Who knows...but when I got married my mother tucked zinnias into my bridal bouquet...and I didn't nibble on a single one of them that day."
DR-T on Saturday 14 September 2013
"I've always loved Zinnias. Thank you for this post. Very informative. :)"
Briana on Saturday 14 September 2013
"Profusion Zinnias? I live in Southern Spain and have a small patio garden with high walls. Plenty of hot sun during summmer, but a big problem with powdery mildew and tiny white insects which leave a sticky, shiny deposit on most of the plants, and of course geranium moths. Where can I buy Profusion Zinnia seeds? Should also appreciate your advice about discouraging the beasties. Tried Neem Oil - good but not enough to sort the problem completely."
Vivien Sutcliffe on Saturday 14 September 2013
"Vivien, Moles Seeds in the UK sells several Profusion varieties, which are an interspecies cross with narrow-leaf zinnia, from which it gets its powdery mildew resistance. Can anyone out there suggest a seed source in Spain?"
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 16 September 2013
"Thank you so much. A Spanish seed source would be great. "
Vivien Sutcliffe on Monday 16 September 2013
"I live in South Texas and have grown Zinnia's for years. Mine will reseed during the summer and I will have beautiful cut flowers that will last thru December. Then by April I will see tiny seedlings sprouting again. One of my favorite and easy to grow flowers with tons of colors/varieties to choose from."
Beverly Olson on Friday 20 September 2013
"What are my chances of having zinnias in flower in Oxford UK next October 24th (2015) My daughter is getting married and would love these in her bouquet and on the tables?"
Daphne on Wednesday 3 September 2014
"I would love to grow these I live in Yorkshire in England do you think the climate will be alright to ggrow Zinnias and little help when and where to plant will be appreciated thankyou ."
Hilary on Saturday 21 February 2015
"Hilary, please try a Profusion variety, which are small but resist powdery mildew, so they are good for cool climates."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 23 February 2015
"Zinnia's are some of my very favorite flowers! My Mom threw the contents of a packet of zinnia's under her bug light, those were the tallest, brightest, most beautiful flowers ever! I guess they really like electrocuted bugs! "
Vickie on Monday 14 March 2016
"FYI. Ben from Higgledy gardens sell the best zinnia and many other cut flower seeds. Love them growing alongside my veggies on my plot!"
Daphne Norridge on Sunday 24 July 2016
"Thanks so much great article. I love zinnias and have grown them from seed year after year and they never fail to brighten my garden with their exquisite colours. I hope I can get the variety mentioned here just south of Newcastle in NSW , Australia."
Sarah McLeam on Sunday 24 July 2016

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