The Zinnia Ballet

Many questions have been received concerning easy, prolific, butterfly-friendly flowers that can be planted with minimum effort, require little maintenance, and pay with rewards of color, variety, and smiles.

I am reminded of my four granddaughters early passion for the ballet. They have seen all the great Russian and French performances on YouTube plus many in person and always come back to their first and favorite – Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Why? Color, variety, smiles! The costumes are memorable, the music is danceable, and the story has twists and turns with heroes and villians alike.

The Nutcracker has it all for children and adults!

Consider the Zinnia! My mother called it “zeen-ya” and I have heard others refer to the beautiful blossoms as “zin-ee-a”. Whatever you call them, they are easy, very pretty, and sure to please.

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The Zinnia is a member of the Sunflower family. Note the actual flowers in the center.

There are three basic bloom types – simple, semi-compound, and compound. Sizes range from miniature one foot “Lilliputians” to huge five foot giants. Most are in the 2-3 foot range but always check the seed packet for sizes that will fit your garden. Planting giants in the front of your garden will hide whatever is in the back all summer and miniatures should never be in the back as they need sun – always. In fact – that is about all they need. Fertilizer isn’t necessary although a good garden soil will maximize growth and bloom. They are drought tolerant but like a drink of water when temperatures rise. Always – however – plant them in maximum sun.

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Color is prime!

Seeds? Do NOT buy potted plants for several reasons. Seeds are very inexpensive especially in bulk or larger packets. A pot has but one plant and why would you want just one or two plants? Zinnias love company. If you have ever seen the Russian ballet – Swan Lake – you will realize the beauty of the swans is in their coordinated, well orchestrated number. One or two are cute but twenty or thirty – be they swans or Zinnia – are breathtaking.

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The “Swans” lakeside.
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Zinnias love to be part of a dancing company.

What about color? Swans are white and white is a rare color in a Zinnia. Every other color in the rainbow is present in a mixed collection of Zinnia. Reds, yellows, oranges, purples, blue not so much, white occasionally – all in varying hues and usually not together one plant. If you like one striking color, like a deep scarlet or a vibrant purple, then buy seeds of one color only. Be warned, however, that a different color might sneak in to the seed lot and saved seeds for next Spring will not stay true to color.

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Try just one color for a striking display!

Blossom sizes range from little one-inch “buttons” to monsters that may be five inches across – most are in the two inch to 3 1/2 inch grouping. Stems are hollow and very strong although once bent will never recover. If you accidently bend a stem to its breaking point, simply snip it off and put in a vase for indoor cut flowers. Few rival the Zinnia for cut blossoms. Always snip the stem with scissors just above a leaf node and you will be rewarded with 3 or 4 new stems each sprouting a new blossom.

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Zinnia buttons.

Any secrets to growing Zinnias? Loosen the soil and add a soil amendment if heavy clay is present. Scatter the seeds carefully and space them three to six inches apart. Cover with a quarter inch of light soil and water carefully. Don’t let them dry out but don’t flood either. When the baby Zinnia emerge in a few days, let them grow several inches and then snip, don’t pull, every other one. Giving them a little space prevents leaf mildew and lets the survivors flourish to their intended glory. Snipping prevents disturbing the root system as Zinnia don’t like to have their roots disturbed and don’t care to be transplanted.

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Once seeds sprout and grow a few inches – start thinning to at least six inches apart – more for bigger varieties.

Once a frost hits, your Zinnias will die. Don’t despair as the dried heads will keep perfectly over the winter and be ready for next years plantings! Store the dried heads in a paper bag with some powdered milk added to absorb moisture. Keep them dry all winter. Many gardeners remove the seeds from the heads with their thumb and store just the seeds. Either way is OK.

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Each spent bloom has hundreds of seeds. Each petal has a seed at its base.
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Store seeds in a paper bag over the winter.

The more seeds you can sow in the late frost-free Spring the better as the larger the area – the better the display of color, variety, and smiles! Let Zinnia dance on your garden stage and sit back and enjoy the floral music nature intended with frolicking butterflies, buzzing bees, and occasional hummingbirds all choreographed in a scintillating score of rainbow splendor.

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Butterflies love Zinnias!

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