August has rolled around, and with it, the dog days of summer. If your garden is anything like mine, it’s starting to show a little wear and tear, responding to some extreme summer heat and drought. The bloom is off my roses—literally—and most other flowers in the garden are a little crispy around the edges.
Everything, that is, except the zinnias.
Benefits of Zinnias
Zinnias are one of those rare blossoms that not only laugh in the face of heat and drought, but also put on such a colorful, glorious display, the rest of your summer garden will be embarrassed.
Their large, petaled faces come in all shades of pink, yellow, orange, red, and purple, making a garden loaded with zinnias look like it’s full of large, colorful lollipops. And the pigments are so rich and clear—it’s exactly what the eye is searching for on a sweltering August day.
This bold annual has been in cultivation for hundreds of years and originates in the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central America, which explains why it’s such a great performer in hot, sunny locations in the garden. Flowers last for such a long time in pristine condition that zinnias are sometimes known by the common name “Youth and Old Age.” Gardeners have a great sense of humor, don’t we?
Look around and you’re likely to see zinnias everywhere in a garden, starting at the front of a garden bed at 6 inches tall, all the way to the back, standing at a stately 4 feet tall, and everything in between.
And butterflies? Zinnias attract butterflies like moths to a flame. Regardless of which form the zinnia flower comes in, from singles, doubles, and ruffles to dahlia and cactus forms and small pompoms, they make perfect landing pads for monarchs, swallowtails, and other butterflies. This nectar-rich flower is a must-have for all butterfly gardens.
You can start zinnias by seed indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last average frost date for your zone, or wait and sow them directly in the garden when the weather warms. It’s an incredibly easy plant to grow from seed—great for children and beginning gardeners. I’ve even had zinnias sow themselves from seed that appeared on stems from the previous year.
Or stop by your local garden center and pick up a six-pack or two. In fact, I plant zinnia seed directly in the soil successively every two weeks in patches at Moss Mountain Farm (Zone 8a) as a late as August. This always ensures plenty of blooms in early fall and through October.
The only disease issues to keep an eye out for are possibly leaf spot and powdery mildew. The main culprits are too much water, high humidity, and poor air circulation. During the height of summer, water at the base of the plants so that leaves remain dry, and let them dry out between waterings. Pick up and discard brown, fallen leaves, and space plants so that there’s enough room for good air circulation. If necessary, treat affected plants with a fungicide, such as Neem oil.
But honestly, I think the zinnia’s overwhelming flower power is enough to overcome any spots or blemishes you might encounter.
P. Allen Smith’s Favorite Zinnia Varieties
- Zinnia elegans ‘Cut and Come Again’—These 3-feet-tall double flowers feature blooms about 2.5 inches wide. And as you might guess, they make great cutting flowers, producing new flower buds throughout the growing season.
- Zinnia elegans ‘State Fair’—The classic zinnia and my gold standard variety. Plants reach about 2.5 feet tall, and flower heads are an amazing 5–6 inches across. You can see these blooms from a mile away.
- Zinnia elegans ‘Benary’s Giant’—The go-to zinnia for the cut-flower industry, ‘Benary’s Giant’ has luscious, dahlia-type flower heads and extra-sturdy stems. Plants reach about 3 feet tall, with blooms 5 inches wide.
- Zinnia elegans ‘Magellan’—Considered a dwarf variety, ‘Magellan’ reaches 12–14 inches tall, with double flowers. This variety has a tidy, uniform growth habit, so is perfect in containers and window boxes.
- Zinnia elegans ‘Thumbelina’—A true dwarf at only 4–6 inches tall, ‘Thumbelina’ is a great selection for the front of the border or as part of a container planting display.
- Zinnia marylandica ‘Profusion’—Exceptional disease resistance and a compact, uniform habit make this another popular variety. Plants reach about 18 inches tall and can spread to about 18 inches wide. These qualities make this variety a great selection for garden planting en masse.
- Zinnia angustifolia—Also known as creeping zinnia, this plant features narrow leaves and is often used at the front of the border, reaching about 12 inches tall. Z. angustifolia is even more robust than Z. elegans, so you’ll often see it in mass plantings.
This is just a small sampling of the many zinnias available, and there are new varieties being introduced every year. Just let some of the names entice you: ‘Whirligig Mix,’ ‘Peppermint Stick,’ ‘Red Spider,’ ‘Queen Lime with Blotch,’ ‘Persian Carpet, ‘and ‘Raggedy Ann.’ My fingers are twitching for a seed catalog, and I hope yours are too.
Favorite Zinnia Flower Arrangements
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Photo by Still Waters Farm and Gardens, via Instagram @stillwatersfarmandgardens
Varied stem lengths thoughtfully placed in a humble glass jar creates negative space that allows us to admire an array of zinnias grown by Still Waters Farm and Gardens in Hickory, North Carolina. This all-zinnia flower arrangement features 'Queen Red Lime,' 'Queen Lime Orange,' and 'Benary’s Giant' in a variety of hues.“Coming in a brilliant spectrum of colors, zinnias are an excellent summer annual. We direct sow the seeds in mid- to late spring, pinching them after a few inches of growth. The blooms are vibrant and productive continuing throughout the hottest part of summer.”—Still Waters Farm and Gardens
Farm to Table
It's time to dine among the flowers. With a pair of simple, vibrant zinnia flower arrangements, this idyllic table setting from the pages of Julia Reed’s South brings to mind a favorite quote from another consummate host, the late William Yeoward: “When you’re entertaining in the garden, it’s imperative that all the flowers come from the garden as well.”
Photo by Jeffrey Lee Adler
The late Ryan Gainey, a renowned gardener, floral designer, and Flower magazine contributor, loved a good "pansy ring." Today you can find vintage (and some new) versions designed to hold delicate, petite blooms in a wreath-like shape in antique shops or on Etsy. However, for a version large enough for zinnias and coreopsis, Gainey commissioned this terra-cotta piece from Hewell's, an American pottery company dating back to 1850. Here, a trio of sunflowers punctuate a floating wreath of orange zinnias.
Photo by Lauren Leigh Schmidt, @laurenleigh.schmidt via Instagram
Peaches and Cream
"I just couldn’t resist cutting my first ever dinner plate dahlia," says Lauren Leigh Schmidt of this bouquet picked from her Midwestern garden. With dinner plate dahlias and other large blooms, one or two is often all you need. Cosmos and a variety of zinnias, including 'Oklahoma' salmon and ivory and 'Zinderella' peach, round out the bouquet beautifully.
Photo by Anna Naphtali
A Constance Spry Moment
“We look to the garden for bright, happy flowers such as zinnias and dahlias and mix with traipsing vines—a sort of Constance Spry moment,” says John Loecke, co-Founder of Madcap Cottage. When a summer rainstorm brought a garden party indoors, Loecke did not miss a beat. He gathered an armful of zinnias, dahlias, sunflowers, roses, and other foliage and garden blooms and filled the home with no-fuss arrangements. Constance Spry, the iconic British floral maven who embraced simple beauty and shunned restrictive rules, would have approved. See more from this summer party.