Like the sunflowers I mentioned in my previous article, annual zinnias (Zinnia elegans) grow fast and also produce big, bold blooms. Not as large as Helianthus, granted, but some of my mother’s zinnia flowers used to measure 5 or 6 inches across.

So far I haven’t been as good at growing them as she was. But I’m hoping for better luck this year, since the weather has been sunny and dry for a change, which I’m hoping will eliminate the fungi and snails my zinnias were subjected to over several years of soggy weather. Unfortunately, a little birdie or other creature has taken to yanking up many of my seedlings—something that seldom happened during those years of the slug. With gardening, if it’s not one thing, it’s another even more annoying!

Zinnia 'Queen Lime Red'

Sowing Seeds

Fortunately, zinnias usually will flower despite nibbled or fungus-y foliage and can bloom in as little as two months from seed. Just as for the sunflowers, I usually plant my seeds about 1/4-inch deep indoors at about the time of our final frost date. I move their container outdoors as soon as the seeds begin to sprout, which can take a couple days to a week, and transplant the seedlings into the ground once they are large enough to handle. Low-growing types should be spaced about 6 inches apart, up to 18 inches apart for the giant varieties.

I think Mom always sowed her zinnias directly into the garden, which could be why they were more vigorous. Some sources hold that they resent transplanting and should be germinated where they are to grow instead.

Zinnia calyx

Siting Seedlings

The plants like full sun, well-drained soil, and an airy location to prevent those fungus diseases I mentioned. It’s also a good idea to pinch off the tips of the seedlings when they are young to encourage them to branch out. Cutting the flowers doesn’t just provide you with beautiful bouquets. It also prevents the plants from going to seed and encourages them to keep pumping out posies instead.

If your flowers are afflicted with Japanese beetles, you may want to leave a few wild evening primroses (Oenothera biennis) growing around the perimeters of your garden. I’ve found that the bugs will make a beetle-line for the primroses and often leave my other plants alone.

Zinnia center

Choosing Cultivars

Among the most popular zinnia cultivars in recent summers have been the Queen Lime series, with green-tinged blooms and the Zinderella series with crested ones. Although I have tried several crested varieties over the years, none of their tufts have risen to the heights that they do in seed catalog photos, but I hear they fare better in the Northwest. Also, almost any double-flowered types may switch to producing single blooms if the plants are stressed out.

In addition to the annuals, there actually are a couple low-growing perennial zinnias also. The white-flowered desert zinnia (Zinnia acerosa) and the yellow-flowered Rocky Mountain zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora) reportedly are hardy to at least USDA zone 6.

One of the features I especially like about zinnias is the elaborate overlapping arrangement of often dark-edged “scales” in their calyxes. Then, of course, there is the boho-dacious wreath of little flowers or tubes that surrounds the pouf at the center of each bloom. So, despite a reputation for being common, zinnias are anything but conventional.


Photos: The photos in the article are my own.