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Zinnias Save the Day

When the summer heat is wearing out the rest of your garden, colorful zinnias reign. P. Allen Smith shares tips for growing zinnias and some of his favorite zinnia varieties
purple zinnia bloom in the garden
Zinnias come in all shapes and sizes and are a must for every garden. Discover favorite varieties and growing tips. Photo by Jason Masters

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.

Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors. Even green! Photo by P. Allen Smith

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.

Zinnias are annuals that attract butterflies and beneficial insects to your garden. Photo by Kelly Quinn
“As Moss Mountain Farm enters the fall season, I like to take the last bit of opportunity to enjoy my beautiful zinnias.”—P. Allen Smith. Photo by Kelly Quinn

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.

Growing Zinnias

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.

P. Allen Smith, wearing a red gingham shirt and jeans, stands at a farmhouse-style sink with bunches of red zinnias
Zinnias are one of my favorite summer flowers. And growing zinnias is easy. A single packet of seeds will produce enough blooms to enjoy both in the garden and indoors. Photo by Jason Masters

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 angustifoliaAlso 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.

Start Planting!

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.

By P. Allen Smith

P. Allen Smith is one of America’s most recognized garden and design experts. His Moss Mountain Farm serves as a place of inspiration, education, and conservation. Book tours at pallensmith.com/tours.

Favorite Zinnia Flower Arrangements

From simple handpicked bouquets to artistic masterpieces, easy-to-grow zinnia flowers shine in seasonal arrangements from late summer through early autumn

To view the gallery, click the arrows or swipe if on a mobile device.

Zinnias in a variety of colors in a glass jar against a charcoal gray background

Photo by Still Waters Farm and Gardens, via Instagram @stillwatersfarmandgardens

Artful Simplicity

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
Table for six, set in a field of zinnias with a red barn in the background. The table is set with red and white linens, blue and white china, and two vases of pink and red zinnias.
Photo by Paul Costello from Julia Reed's South: Entertaining and High-Style Fun All Year Long (Rizzoli New York, 2016)

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.”

A gardener's basket overflows with white zinnia blooms

Photo by @peoniesandpeppers via Instagram

Garden Bounty

Deadheading helps perennials and annuals bloom throughout the summer. If you're pinching off blooms before they are completely spent, why not bring them inside and enjoy the fruits of your labor for a bit? See more summer gardening tips.

Photo by Jeffrey Lee Adler

Flower Ring

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.

Summer bouquet by Lauren Leigh Schmidt

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.

Large zinnia flower arrangement in a white urn

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.

Zinnia flower arrangement with a mix of late summer flowers
Photo by Kristen Nagel of Black Rooster Farm, via Instagram @blackroosterfarm

What's Blooming Now

Take a cue from Black Rooster Farm in Kentucky, and create a bouquet with a little bit of everything that's in season. This one includes zinnias, tobacco flowers, dahlias, cupcake and seashell cosmos, opal basil, allium, and shisho from the farm.
Lush Floral Arrangement featuring a lime color scheme touches of blush pink
Photo from Color Me Floral by Kiana Underwood (Chronicle Books, 2018)

Old World Style

‘Lime Cordial’ zinnias join a team effort in this monochromatic triumph by Kiana Underwood of Tulipina, based in San Francisco. Along with branches of walnut and young weeping willow, Chinese lantern, ‘Limelight’ hydrangea, Siam tulip, and orchids, the green-petaled zinnias create a multi-textured, verdant base. Then ranunculus and spray roses add a blush of pink. This floral design is one of many featured in Underwood's book Color Me Floral: Stunning Monochromatic Arrangements for Every Season. Get step-by-step instructions for this arrangement.
Photo by Ashley Sawtelle

Polished and Petite

As summer transitions to early autumn, zinnias continue to shine in seasonal flower arrangements, such as this petite vase. "I love designing small sometimes. But I think the challenge lies in keeping small small, which means you have to be picky with your choice and placement of each stem so that it all stays in scale. The joy of a small design is that it can really highlight a petite blossom, like the many-petaled 'Zinderella' zinnia in this composition," says floral designer Frances Harjeet. Along with ‘Zinderella’ zinnias, Frances' design features ‘Color Spectacle’ dahlias, ‘Foxy Lady’ dahlias, ‘Caramel Antike’ garden roses, ranunculus, chrysanthemums, snapdragons, scented geranium leaves, privet branches, millet, and wild grasses.
Arrangement of green, yellow and orange/coral blooms in an antique-looking brass box
Photo by Erica George Dines

Luxe Accent

Here, zinnias mingle with ‘René Goscinny’ roses, mokara orchids, sedum, celosia, tansy, yarrow, hypericum berries, and bunny tails grass. Michal Evans, one of Atlanta’s premier floral and event designers, styled this piece to accentuate the luxe decor of interior designer Suzanne Kasler's home. See more floral designers by Evans.
Photo by David Hillegas

An Exercise in Contrast

Sybil Sylvester, floral designer and author of Fresh (Glitterati, 2017), designed this arrangement of white zinnias, marigolds, black-eyed Susans, and pyracantha. It adds a dash of contrast against a pine green wall at a party in the home of architect James Carter in Birmingham, Alabama.