Flower Spotlight: Zinnia


Zinnias were one of the few gateway flowers that led me down the rabbit-hole of growing cut flowers. If you have followed my past blogs, then you would know that I started growing vegetables and only grew flowers for companion planting.  In case you haven’t followed my past blog posts (who wouldn’t though?!) here’s a quick recap:



 I had tried to hone in on growing flowers that had medicinal, culinary, or some form of companion planting benefit for my vegetables (if you want to know my top five flowers to grow in your vegetable garden read my blog here).  Cut flowers were not a priority (I know, it’s like you don’t even know me!).   Zinnias weren’t really on the list, other than they could benefit pollinators.  I always admired the zinnias growing in my in-law’s garden, so when I saw that Burpee packet of zinnias- I couldn’t resist.



Also, let me tell you. I snagged that seed packet of zinnias super late July.  Do you see the courage in that?  Or perhaps the stupidity.  I was told it was too late, that person was probably right but for a few bucks, what did it hurt?  That year, I got lucky.  It also set me up to believe that growing zinnias would be easy for years to come.  They are supposed to be easy.  They are prolific, can be direct sown, aren’t super hungry like some other flowers.  Yup, easy. The first year they were!  Man, I was harvesting those guys into November that year.  Some zinnias, snips of calendula, marigolds and salvia- that little arrangement sparked something in me.  


Yes, I am going to show that arrangement… again.  A fistful of flowers in a vase that I had gotten from my sister-in-law that had held flowers for my birthday a couple months prior.  I treasured those flowers and that simple hourglass vase from her. That chilly November night, her gift had transformed into something else.  My life transformed into something else. Those zinnias did it.



It's insane!  Each time I take a trip down memory lane with the flowers, it amazes me how much the flowers and myself have changed.  

As much as I loved zinnias that year, the last couple of years I had begun to resent them.  I know, crazy!  Who could resent easy-to-grow-prolific-flowers?  Me.  Google “start flower farming” and you will find three flowers that are said to be the starter package for a flower farmer: cosmos, sunflowers and zinnias. Foolproof.  Well... not earwig and frost proof.    



The last couple years we have had late frosts and in turn early frosts.  Even with planting zinnias out following the Carson Valley golden rule for tomatoes (plant after Carson Valley days for those who aren’t aware of our local rules).  It still either stunted, purpled or blackened my poor zinnias.  The ones that did survive, the earwigs chewed, nibbled, and ultimately scarfed down.  The sad few that passed that test, the earwigs continued to feast on their petals. Needless to say, I didn’t have the oodles of zinnias that I had anticipated.

I was frustrated.  Heartbroken.  I was ready to give up on the zinnias but Graham continued to encourage me that with some diligence and luck they would be worth it.

For once, I listened to him.


This year, I have gorgeous zinnias!  Not just any zinnias, but the amazing queen lime series.  With limited space, I can only have so many varieties and well, I grow what I like (and just hope you like it too!).  Some growers love the queen lime varitietes, some don’t.  I am camp love.  Each bloom has its own personality and beautiful coloring, that at times even look antique!  Plus, in design work, I can never have enough flowers that act as a bridge between colors.  These bridge colors bring a appealing flow and fills in the gap between otherwise stark colors.  I must say, this year "Queen Lime Orange" has definitely stolen my heart with her sherbet colors, ugh I just can't get enough!



In the language of flowers “zinnia” carries quite a few different meanings.  Friendship, remembrance and my favorite: endurance.  This year they have quite definitely lived up to that! With finally being able to harvest them, they have endured our fluctuating weather and hungry bugs. Endurance is also very much a word for Sierra Flower Farm this year.  There has been a lot of challenges to endure on many different levels that we have overcome and continue to overcome.  Thinking out of the box, celebrating successes, learning from our many mistakes and embracing the things out of our control (that last one is hard to do).  As Paramahansa Yogananda said: “the season of failure is the best time for sowing seeds of success.”  So that’s what we have been doing, figuratively and literally!  Sometimes its exhausting but in the end, there should be gorgeous flowers.



Enough of that philosophical stuff.  Let’s chat zinnias.  Zinnias are native to Mexico, like most of our favorite heat-loving flowers.  This is why they aren’t fans of frosts but can handle our summer heat like champs. Zinnias were cultivated by the Aztecs. Not surprising.  The Aztecs were incredible at cultivating and growing so many beloved crops (like amaranth and tomatillos).  Eventually, zinnias were brought to Europe where they attained their name we know them as today, after a botanist Professor Zinn.  



So how do you grow these beauties?  This part is pretty easy.  You can start them ahead of time (about four weeks) before your last frost indoors. After the last frost, you can direct sow them in the garden.  For a continual summer harvest, sow a fresh batch every four weeks.  If you want to have those fluffy double zinnias, as opposed to those ugly singles, pro tip: don’t let them get root bound! The weather not cooperating and allowing you to plant out? Bump them up. It will be worth it.

Zinnias appreciate full sun- they love that heat! For best results, plant in well draining soil and have them on drip irrigation.  Overhead spraying can result in a number of diseases, such as powdery mildew and rust.  Ick.  Watch out for hungry caterpillars and my foes- earwigs!  Especially those tender seedlings, they’ll chomp them to the ground.  If they do get chomped, just sow again!  What's there to lose?  Eventually you will prevail! To learn how to vanquish various pests naturally read my Nitty Gritty blogs on Battling Earwigs and Natural Pest Control Part I and Part II.


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Harvesting zinnias can be a little tricky.  To keep them from going limp on you a mere hour after harvest, harvest early in the morning and do the “wiggle test.”  


What is this wiggle test? Some kind of rain dance?  Not quite.  The wiggle test consists of gently grasping the zinnia a good halfway down the stem and then gently shake it back and forth. If the neck of the zinnia flops, it’s not ready for harvest.  If the neck of the zinnia is stiff, harvest away!  Harvesting zinnias before they are ready will just result in limp, dead flowers.  So be patient!



Zinnias are also one of those fussy flowers that just aren’t fans of commercial flower food.  They also are considered a “dirty” flower in that they have a hairy stem and make the water gross- super fast, so leaving them in plain water doesn’t work that great either.  Adding a splash of bleach or a CVBN tablet to the container will help keep the bacteria down.  You can also make your own flower food following my preferred recipe here.  


With proper care, zinnias should give a vase life of about five days.  The great part about zinnias is the more you cut, the more they bloom! So cut away or be sure to deadhead regularly. For the best stem lengths all season long, don’t get shy on cutting deep from the plant. The deeper the cut, the more usable stems you shall receive. A good length is about the length of your forearm. I know, sounds scary right? Do it, it will be so worth it!

Zinnias are gorgeous but I would not recommend their use for corsages or boutonnieres. If you must have them, use the unopened bud or stick a damp cotton ball in their hollow stem. These guys do not like to be left out of water!

With summer right around the corner, I hope you add some of these delightful blooms into your cutting garden!

I am looking forward to handing you blooms soon!




The Lowdown:

Sowing: can be started 4 weeks prior to last frost or direct sown after last frost; seeds germinate 3-7 days; do not allow plants to become root bound for increase yield of fluffy doubles.

Full Sun; well draining soil; drip irrigation

Succession sow: every 3-4 weeks; we aim for minimum two succession, three if we can manage.

Frost Sensitivity: incredibly frost sensitive; if your area has a habit of late frosts (like ours!) plant under a double row cover, minimally frost cloth. We plant out beginning early May in our area.

Season in bloom: Summer to first kill frost 

Plant Spacing: 6-9” (we prefer 8”); note the closer the spacing the increase of disease may occur

Trellising: may be beneficial in windy areas but not a must

Diseases: powdery mildew, rust,

Zinnia meltdown: there is a particular bacteria that can lead to seemingly healthy harvested zinnias that turn to mush within 24 hours. CVBN tablet may help. Hold zinnias for a minimum of 24 hours after harvest to ensure they do not succumb to zinnia meltdown.

Pests: earwigs, blister beetles, grasshoppers, cucumber beetles, Japanese beetles, aphids, mites and spider mites. Can be susceptible to bad nematodes.

Storage: Does not store well in cooler under 45 degrees F (like most warm loving flowers). Do not store more than 5 days max, we personally don’t store for more than two days.

Market: Best for local market.

Some of our must have varieties: Queen Lime series (all of them! Orange, red, blotch and lime). Oklahoma series (especially ivory and salmon, swoon!). Aztec burgundy and Persian carpet (the most adorable little button filler flowers!).

Zinnias do not do well out of water, provide a water source at all times.

Harvest: early in the morning is best, be sure to do the wiggle test! Do not use commercial flower food, opt for CVBN tablet