Gardening on the Planet, It's the Plants, Darling

Zinnias for Pollinators!

A variety of Pollinator Zinnias_edited-1

One of Marcia’s zinnia rows, a mix for a variety of pollinators. Her vegetable garden is located behind the zinnias.

A recent guest post in defense of butterfly bushes prompted the usual debate (natives v. exotics) but also this wise comment by an avid wildlife gardener:

My yard is filled with native flowers, shrubs and trees. However, the surrounding area is not, so giving them something extra that blooms for a long period of time with the help of water and deadheading is alluring to the insects. Currently, here in Maryland, it is the driest August since 2006. Flowers are few and far between and young trees are stressed.

Offering single bloom zinnias and buddleia along with the native aster, sedum, and goldenrod, offers much needed sustenance right now. The sterile Agastache Blue Fortune is teeming with bee activity while the native agastache are going to seed. My added fruit table is devoured by butterflies, flies, ants and bees and the hummingbirds hang out above it.

I offer natives, but the zinnias and buddleia, and fruit are attracting big time this August. I think we can do both.

That’s from Marcia van Horn, whose fabulous pollinator-friendly front yard we admired in this video and whose amazing campaign to increase the population of bluebirds is described in “How to Grow Bluebirds.”

So I asked Marcia for more information about Zinnias and their role in providing for pollinators, and she responded with photos, videos and tips.

[youtube width=”600″ height=”405″]https://youtu.be/znsnq8dnacs[/youtube]

So what ARE the right kinds of Zinnias?

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Four of Marcia’s favorites, clockwise from upper left, are ‘Lilliput,’ Zinnia marylandica (popular types include ‘Profusion,’ ‘Pinwheel,’ ‘Zahara’), ‘Yellow Flame,’ and ‘State Fair.’

Marcia directed me to more information about the Zinnia marylandica species, which describes them as blooming prolifically and growing to 12-18 inches. They’re more compact and bushier than standard zinnia varieties – without pinching – and they’re heat- and disease-tolerant. They need a half day of sun or more.

Marcia has found that nurseries often carry ‘Zahara,’ ‘Profusion’ and ‘Pinwheel’ Zinnias and no others, which is fine because even one of these types will do the job – for shorter varieties – but it’s the taller ones that attract the most pollinators.

Four other Zinnias that she recommends are ‘State Fair,’ ‘California Giant,’ ‘Lilliput,’ and ‘Yellow Flame,’ and she suggests planting them from shortest to tallest in the garden: a marylandica variety, then ‘Liliput,’ ‘Yellow Flame,’ and at the rear, ‘State Fair’ or ‘California Giant.’

Now for Marcia’s growing tips: “Buy the seeds, plant indoors and later transplant, or start them in the ground. If you’re serious about aiding the pollinators into the autumn, then deadhead, fertilize, water; then do a second seeding the first of July or transplant in mid-July.”

The pollinators Marcia has noticed at her zinnias include butterflies, bees and moths, but there’s more. Scroll down in this article by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to “butterfly favorites” for a list of insects they attract.

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Above, a mix of pollinator-friendly plants in Marcia’s neighbor’s yard, including zinnias. Marcia explains:

My neighbor has a fenced garden that had nothing planted in front of it. I look out my front window at the fence. I asked if she would like a pollinator-attracting flower garden that would be of benefit to  her vegetables behind the fence (and which would benefit my view). She said, “Sure.” Along this small fence you will now find plants for the entire season: salvia, agastache, rudbeckia, verbena, solidago, and added zinnias that will be bright until frost and will bring out the color of the other plants and draw the eye even as they fade, one of the benefits of adding zinnias to the garden.

Honestly, my own new pollinator garden is mostly a bust, so next year I’m all in for zinnias. 

Posted by on September 25, 2015 at 8:08 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, It's the Plants, Darling.
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9 responses to “Zinnias for Pollinators!”

  1. VG says:

    Can you successfully save seed of zinnias?

    • Marcia says:

      This can get a bit complicated and…and fun.

      Some zinnias are hybrids, some open-pollinated. Commercially available hybridized seeds (F1), not naturally hybridized, will not be “true-to-type” the following year, i.e. the bloom will not be identical to last year’s bloom and the plant may be less vigorous. Some people like to experiment or rather they like to see what the bees come up with during their cross-pollination hybridization and then collect and plant the seeds the next year. For many, that’s a fun thing to do. What will it look like?

      But, in general, you might want to collect the open-pollinated seeds and buy the hybrids seeds.

      Whatever you do, buy inexpensive seeds or collect your seeds ( you can google – collect zinnia seeds for instruction), make sure you buy the non-double flower or double bloom zinnias. These will not attract the pollinators.

      The seed companies will usually clearly indicate the variety (hybrid or not) and the flower type (single, semidouble, an double.)

      If there’s one that will have your neighbors and the pollinators turning their heads, it’s Yellow Flame. aka Wowie Zowie. The seeds aren’t cheap so you might want to start them indoors under a shop light, but mine have been in bloom for 3 months and they are still going strong. I have definitely gotten my money’s worth out of them.

      http://all-americaselections.org/winners/details.cfm?WinID=429

      (And, of course, in my opinion, zinnias should only be used as an addition to the native pollinator attracting nectar producers and hosts.)

      Finally, wouldn’t it be nice if the nurseries said “no” to mums and gave us zinnias in September? The pollinators would be thrilled to have a fall food fest like that on this hill:

      http://www.pekintimes.com/article/20150909/NEWS/150909303

  2. Linda says:

    I have had zinnias for years. My mom always let the last blooms of the season dry and then crumble them over the flowerbed in the areas she wanted them to grow. I have started doing what she did and having pretty good luck.

  3. Louise says:

    l had great zinnias last year and wanted even more. This year’s late spring and late summer meant that my first zinnia grown from seed outdoors, the huge pink one in the flower above bloomed on August 28! It was glorious and dozens more were pudding.

    My heart was broken as an animal crushed the stems, eating the zinnias overnight. Luckly I have many other flowers still in bloom keeping bees happy.

  4. Claire Jones says:

    Marcia
    If a flower attracts pollinators, I plant it, regardless of origin. I live in Maryland also, and my zinnias and butterfly bush attract hordes of butterflies and other lesser known pollinators. My biggest attractant though is Mexican sunflower, or tithonia. If I don’t plant that flower, I feel that I let my pollinators down!

    • Marcia says:

      Claire,

      I agree with you on the Mexican sunflower. I rarely see it because you can’t buy it at the nursery. We need to get people to pay $1 for the seeds (even at Home Depot) and “garden.” When I started pollinator gardening a few years ago, I had the hardest time trying to figure out what I needed. This would anger the landscape designer I was working with. I told him I was sorry, but he was patient, and he was learning right along with me. He said, “Marcia, you see, most of the work I do, and what people want, is a landscape they think looks good from behind their living room windows. You….you’re a gardener.” I still didn’t think I was, but once I started plants from seed, that’s when I felt comfortable with that description. Heck, I became bold enough to ask the local nursery chain if they would start carrying swamp milkweed and now you can get it there every year.

      Mexican Sunflower. I start it indoors twice a year. My July plants are fading, but my plants that went in August 20 are rocking. And, the hummingbirds are liking them, today, too.

      I, like you, enjoy them so much I made a short video a few years ago:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DLx6IbGCa0

  5. Donna says:

    Zinnas are now my go-to pollinators in my Southern California garden. I created “native beds” near my vegetable gardens last fall and interplanted zinnias with my veggies. I was thrilled to see that this year, despite our severe drought, the variety of critters visiting my garden was vast and plentiful. I will definitely continue to do “all of the above,” and I plan on trying out Linda’s idea for self-seeding. Thanks for the tip, Linda!

    Thank you for this excellent post!

  6. John Lalley says:

    I too am in Maryland and I always plant Zinnias and Marigolds in my vegetable garden to attract pollinators. The Marigolds add color and keep critters and mosquitos away. I read somewhere that the mosquito thing was a myth, but it works for me.

  7. Zinnias are my favorite annual to plant. So easy, so carefree, the butterflies and hummingbirds love them, and they are pretty.