They bloom in vivid colors from summer until frost, are a snap to grow from seed, and attract birds and butterflies to your yard.

By Pam Ruch and Lauren Sloane


5 Top Choices
Every year, a fresh crop of new zinnia varieties are touted as the best yet. We've grown many of them and have waded through the riot of pinks, yellows, oranges, and reds to compile this hit parade.

Go big. If you want big, bright, and bold flowers, you'll love 'Benary's Giant' (Zinnia elegans). Even in the saturated air of a Pennsylvania July, these Goliaths remain mildew free. They sometimes tire of standing perfectly straight as the summer draws to an end. That's why some gardeners start a second flat of seedlings in June and transplant it in mid-July. The result? Clean, fresh, upright blooms from August until frost.

Midsize magic. You'll find plenty of midheight zinnias to choose from, includ-ing candy-cane-striped heirlooms and 'Cut and Come Again' mixes. Just when you think you've settled on a favorite, along comes a new look that totally knocks your clogs off. This year the newcomer was 'Zowie! Gold Flame'. Not towering, but not cowering either, it grows to a robust 30 inches tall, in an in-your-face blend of red and gold. Interesting up close and eye-catching from a distance, the effect is like a mass of French marigolds on steroids. And it wasn't just us that liked them—the butterflies preferred them over all other varieties. Nice in a blue vase.

Award winner. Many zinnia varieties have passed the rigorous testing needed to earn an All-America Selections award. But the only series to win the coveted AAS Gold Medal was the hybrid Profusion Series. The neatly mounded shape, consistent color, and disease and drought tolerance of 'Profusion' zinnias have won over researchers, landscapers, and home gardeners. Unlike most zinnias, which are sold in multicolored mixes, 'Profusion' is available in single colors: Orange, Cherry, and White. Highly useful to those who like to color-plan their gardens. Look for new colors in 2006.

Fungus free. For a zinnia with a different look that resists powdery mildew valiantly, try growing the narrow-leaved Z. angustifolia. It's sold in the Star Series or the Crystal Series and is trouble-free, drought-tolerant, and a perfect size (about 1 foot tall and wide) for the front of the border. We find it to be very companionable—in party terms, "a good mixer." Stealthily slip young plants into the gaps left by May tulips and perennials that aren't as perennial as you thought they were—these varieties have a way of making everything around them look better.

Rough-and-tumble. Varieties such as 'Old Mexico' and 'Persian Carpet' are two excellent members of the Z. haageana species. They have a rough-and-tumble habit, and the rich golds, reds, and copper colors foreshadow the coming of fall. 'Old Mexico' bears mostly double flowers (two layers of petals rather than one), while 'Persian Carpet' produces 2-inch double and semidouble blooms in bold autumnal shades.

The two alternative species of zinnia just mentioned—Z. angustifolia and Z. haageana—have naturally strong resistance to powdery mildew. Breeders have preserved this trait in series like Profusion and Pinwheel, making these modern hybrids especially appealing to us organic gardeners, who strongly prefer prevention to treating a problem.