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Gardening

I was wrong about the zinnias. So wrong.

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: September 5
  • Published September 5

Like dahlias, zinnias come in all sorts of colors, sizes and styles. (Getty Images)

This is the weekend I traditionally give instructions on what to do when the first frost hits. I am going to let it slide a couple of weeks because, frankly, none of us is ready for winter, including Mother Nature.

The first weekend of September no longer seems to be a valid marker for frost warnings. Let’s give it a couple of weeks. Why rush winter?

One of the things that makes me want to push off winter is all the flowers blooming. I know we are not supposed to garden for this moment, and that we should rejoice just as much in the process of growing, but frankly, how can you not appreciate the beautiful fruits — as it were — of your efforts?

One plant that I would like to highlight for color this time of year is the zinnia. Wow. The variety we planted had spectacular, daisy-like flowers in red, purple, orange and pink, each topping a 2- to 3-foot tall plant. I could stare at them for hours. While thinking about what to write, I often do!

I have to give my wise wife, Judith, total credit for these flowering annuals and point out that early on in my Alaska gardening career, I adopted the sourdough’s belief that all but the dwarf zinnias are too spindly. They could not stand up to our annual, torrential, August rains. As a result, in all the years gardening here, we never planted any. In fact, I’ve never written a column on them, only giving passing mention to them in the spring seed-starting section of my gardening calendars.

Of course, this was before we stopped having rain in August. And it was before we started having thrips hitting so many of our flowers, rendering them almost useless. And it was before this spring, when Jude insisted that despite my belief, she was going to grow some zinnias.

All it took was for her to see an Ed Hume packet of mixed zinnia seeds laying around the greenhouse and the next thing I know, we had a small flat of zinnia seedlings. They got off to a slow start — OK, I may have “forgotten ” to water them a few times and maybe I didn’t suggest they needed thinning until it was a bit late — but Jude refused to give up on them.

Zinnias come in all sorts of colors, sizes and styles. (Photo by Jeff Lowenfels)

They looked awful, but she used mycorrhizal fungi and transplanted the seedlings into a few a large containers around the porches and decks. I pretty much ignored them. This was spring and it was going to rain in August, after all.

Fast forward to today: OK, Jude. I admit I was wrong. I was really wrong. Zinnias are spectacular annuals and worthy of growing in Southcentral and probably other parts of Alaska. We may not have soggy Augusts any more, but that is unlikely and if does it rain then, zinnias can always be supported with tomato cages or something similar. Besides, they are not as fragile as I was led to believe. Gullible me.

If you are bored with the standard cosmos, marigold, calendula type of annuals and want lots of vibrant colors, then zinnias may just be the thing for you. Like dahlias, they come in all sorts of sizes and styles — dwarf, large, solid colors or mixed petals, etc. This not only makes them “collectable” but provides a variety of opportunities in the landscape. And, they make a terrific, long-lasting cut flower.

Zinnias also happen to be extremely easy to germinate from seed and do not have to be started so early that they would be considered difficult. They obviously can withstand some abuse; ours did, but quickly recovered and thrived.

So, my big surprise this season were zinnias. How about you? Did you plant anything this year that did extremely well or surprised you? Any suggestions for those of us who want to try new things next year? I am going to be much more open to new annuals, that is for sure.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar for the week

Harvest Days festival: Sales, classes and fun over four days at the Alaska Botanical Garden, Sept. 12-15. There are too many activities to list here, so go to alaskabg.org/workshops.html for details.

Harvest: Don’t leave food for the moose. Harvest what you planted. If you can’t use it all, give it to Beans, The Alaska Food Bank or someone who needs it.

Potatoes: Still too early if you want lots of starch in yours. They need much colder weather.

Lawns: Water. Raise the mower blade so the grass grows longer — up to three inches or so. Do not fertilize.

Last week’s column: Whewie. Tremendous response. Let the conversation begin. [See: “Anchorage spruce trees are dying. We need to talk about what happens next.”]

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