Zinnias: A Gardener's Cheery, Carefree Companion

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Zinnias: A Gardener's Cheery, Carefree Companion

One of the wonderful things about gardening is that while there are obvious similarities in growing all plants (they all need water, light, and nutrients), there is also a huge diversity in the end results gardeners can achieve with our invested time.

When my interest in gardening began, it was focused mainly on container gardening for myself and taking care of my husband's 6 tomato plants when he wasn't home to do it himself. Eventually I began planting my ornamentals in the ground and we expanded to 8 and then 10 tomato plants, as well as adding a few pepper and cucumber plants. Over time I've grown to have a great appreciation for the practical aspects of gardening. My goal is to can, dry, preserve, or freeze as much of our family's food needs for the next year as possible.

As my time in the vegetable garden has increased, my attention to the aesthetic side of gardening has diminished. But this has been more the a result of convenience than lack of interest. I'm fortunate that our oldest son has a deep love for gardening and has become a dependable asset in the garden. Most likely because the brain has a greater appreciation visually for large colorful blooms than it does for a cucumber vine, at his young age, his interests lie more on the landscaping side of gardening. My husband and I have always done what we can to encourage his interest in gardening, and by the time he was 14 he had taken on the majority of the responsibility for our landscaping.

While we have given our son free reign to choose the plants we have growing in our yard, we have also made sure to encourage him to plant some things that pretty much guarantee him some success each year. One of the best choices for helping new or young gardeners build confidence in their ability to garden is Zinnias. I introduced our son to them when he was around 6 years old. Because they hail from the hot, dry areas in Mexico and Central America, once established, Zinnias have great tolerance for heat and drought. This makes them perfect not only for a distracted vegetable gardener but also for a young gardener distracted by Tonka trucks!

Young children can be rewarded with a profusion of bright, colorful blooms in around 2 months by simply sprinkling Zinna seeds in an area of soil that has been hoed to loosen it. Encourage them to leave 10-12 inches of space between seeds to prevent overcrowding of the plants when they are mature. Watering them a couple of times a week during dry weather will encourage new growth and healthier plants.

Older children will enjoy the benefits of starting seeds indoors 4-6 weeks prior to the last frost date in your area. Putting plants they started indoors in the ground at the same time they sow some Zinnia seeds in the ground can help them see the rewards of planning ahead. Starting with plants instead of seeds also helps them to begin thinking beyond just growing flowers. It gives them control over where they think each plant will look best and helps them begin to think about garden design. Zinnias are sensitive to transplanting so disturb the roots as little as possible and pay careful attention to watering them after planting until they have recovered.

In addition to being very easy to grow, kids will enjoy seeing the butterflies and hummingbirds that Zinnias attract. I believe, however, that the most loved part for kids growing Zinnias is the plants are heavy bloomers and benefit from frequent cuttings. They will enjoy putting a smile on a lot of faces with a present of freshly cut Zinnias!

Zinnias are very susceptible to a disease called powdery mildew which looks like a white film on the foliage and eventually spreads to the blooms. Typically it just makes the plants look unsightly; however, it can eventually kill the plant. While powdery mildew generally isn't a problem until toward the end of the summer when the nights become cooler and the days are humid, there are a few things you can do in the beginning to inhibit problems from it later.

  • Begin by planting some of the newer, disease-resistant varieties of Zinnias.
  • Zinnias grown in full sun tend to be less likely to suffer from the development of powdery mildew than those grown in the shade. Choose a location that gets at least 6 hours of sun a day.
  • Good air circulation is also beneficial. As difficult as it may be for you to thin out the seedlings as they pop up, it will increase your likelihood of having healthier plants later in the season.
  • It is a commonly believed that getting water on the foliage encourages the growth of powdery mildew. Being attentive to this has never seemed to help us and my research into methods of controlling it has led me to several articles that state water actually washes spores off of the plants and causes those spores that remain in standing water to rupture. However, wet foliage can encourage the development of other diseases so watering the foliage early in the day leaving plenty of time for it to dry before cooler evening temperatures set in is ideal.
  • If you decide to try and treat your Zinnias for powdery mildew with fungicides, consider choosing organic methods rather than chemical. Not only are these healthier, many of them are safe enough that kids can help with the application of them. There are many suggested remedies you can research from baking soda solutions to insecticidal soaps to a solution of 1 part milk to 9 parts water. Carefully consider your choice as even organic methods can be detrimental to beneficial insects. You can read more about how some of the fungicidal treatments you read about may affect insects in the Fiskars article Defending Your Garden from Pests, Naturally by Joe Lamp'l.
  • At the end of the growing season, if you have found yourself battling powdery mildew, be sure to completely remove all diseased plant material to discourage overwintering the spores in your soil and infecting future plantings.

In spite of the possibility of finding yourself contending with powdery mildew, growing Zinnias is highly rewarding. Their ease of care and long-lasting, profuse blooms have earned them the top spot as my favorite flower to grow.