I’ve been getting into flowers this year. At one of my jobs, a gardening gig, in addition to growing organic vegetables, I help to maintain some largely perennial ornamental gardens, as well as a cut flower garden. This year, with my 74-year-old boss slowing a bit, I’ve taken on a little more responsibility, and I’ve found myself really enjoying it.
A person once befuddled with why someone would bother to grow—or pay me to grow—something we can’t eat, truthfully, I’ve been moving in this direction for some time now. I’ve got the article links to prove it: “Why Grow Inedible Flowers in a Permaculture Garden?”, “Why I Love Research”, and “Ornamental Plants That Are Edible and/or Edible Plants That Are Ornamental”. Anyway, zinnias have lately been a topic of discussion between my wife Emma and me. I’ve been caring for a host of them this year, and I just really like them.
Being people who love plants and revel in learning about new botanical possibilities, I’ve decided it’s time for us to delve deeper into why exactly we should have zinnias in our own gardens. To this point, my main justification for it has been something along the lines of “I know I’ve read a few times that it’s a great companion plant.” Well, I’ve barely dipped into the research at this point, and unsurprisingly, I already know that zinnias are a lot more than that.
The Basics Profile
For the most part, zinnias are known as annual flowers for ornamental gardens, which in permaculture terms is not the best start. That said, they have the reputation of being easy to grow and putting out vibrant, varied colour displays: White, green, yellow, orange, red, purple, and several shades in between.
Technically, zinnias are within the greater “daisy” family (Asteraceae) and narrow down into being from the same tribe as “sunflowers” (Helianthodae). Their genus is, in fact, Zinnia, and within said genus, there are numerous species with several bloom shapes, heights, and growing styles to choose from.
They are native to the Americas, in particular warm scrublands and grasslands, and they can grow in all USDA Zones of the contiguous United States, as well as Hawaii and some parts of Alaska. They even have a reputation beyond this planet as they have been grown (and blossomed) in the weightless environment of the International Space Station.
They are intolerant of frosts, but they are well-regarded as drought-resistant and heat-tolerant. They like full sun and—surprise, surprise—well-draining soil. They grow quickly, from seed to flowers in a few weeks, and they prefer to be planted in situ, i.e. they don’t like to be transplanted. Once up, they provide lots of blooms, especially when regularly deadheaded.
Zinnias in a Permaculture World
One of the aspects of my gardening gig that I love is that it has caused me to investigate plants I might have otherwise ignored. Zinnias are just the latest. I also learned about kousa dogwoods (Cornus kousa), beautiful “ornamental” trees with amazing flowers and delicious berries. And, I learned about hostas (Hosta sp.), the ubiquitous shade flower around these parts, which just so happens to be an edible member of the asparagus family.
Like hostas and kousa dogwoods, zinnias have turned out to be edible. The flowers are eaten by gardeners in the know; however, the reviews are that they lean to the bitter side of things. Hence, those accustomed to dining on zinnias seem to suggest them as a flash of colour in salads and such rather than a zinnia flower sandwich. Nonetheless, it’s cool anytime something is edible, and eating flowers is fun.
Luckily, the utility doesn’t stop with pretty in the flower bed or on a salad. No surprise—vibrant, multi-coloured zinnias are, in fact, great companion plants because they attract pollinators, especially butterflies and hummingbirds (Something I’ve witnessed with my own eyes). Additionally, they are credited with repelling whiteflies, much the same as other noted companion plants like nasturtium (edible flower) and marigold (edible flower).
Additionally, zinnias make great cut flowers, which can either be sold in market for income or enjoyed on the dinner table at home. As I’ve gotten into flowers this year, caring for a cut flower garden, the potential of an organically grown, highly marketable cash crop has not escaped me. The beauty is that many of the options are perennial, and while zinnias are not, they do reseed very readily and they survive a long time. In other words, it could be a one-time investment that yields a notable bounty for years to come, all the while benefiting those food plants that surround it.
Once Again, A Silver Lining
A lesson that I seem to learn over and over again, as my knowledge of plants expands, is that very rarely—I can’t think of any—has a plant not proven to have the potential for being a beneficial part of a considered, appropriate design. Hated invasives are often food-producing, nitrogen-fixing additions to food forests. Weeds help to de-compact soils or prevent erosion, provide food, signal nutrient deficiencies, and tons of other stuff.
Zinnias are no different. They seem to be one of those plants that can fulfil several functions without even breaking a mental sweat over it. For me, they’ve been a joy to take care of this year. I’ve admired the blooms each week as I make my rounds over the garden. I’ve enjoyed deadheading them (and the other flowers) as a sort of meditative exercise. And, at this point, I’m finding it more difficult to explain why they would not be in our garden.
I guess I’ll be harvesting some seeds from the jobsite this fall. Free zinnias are even better!