Tree Talk: Summer in a pot

Tree Talk: Summer in a pot

Tree Talk: Summer in a pot

“Ah … This is summer.” Those were the words of Lloyd Lutz, county extensions agent, Shelby County, Ohio, 1958. Lloyd was pointing to a yard square plot of zinnias that I had tucked into a corner of my first vegetable garden, my first 4-H project.

I lived in a small town in the rural Midwest, 12,000 residents. Dad had a department store. All my relatives and friends lived out on their farms, all belonged to 4-H. A network of youth clubs, 4-H was designed (in those days, in that place) to give young people the skills they needed for farm life. I wanted to join, but “city kids,” as a few of us were known, had no sheep, cows, pigs, horses or even chickens to raise as projects. Lloyd spent 99.9 percent of his time tending to those things, plus the cultivation of corn and beans. But he was kind and wise and took me under his wing, suggesting I join a club and do gardening projects. I did. I learned. It changed my life.

Now, it’s important at this point for our readers to know the 4-H pledge, as applicable here and now, as it was there and then:

“I pledge my Head to clearer thinking,

My Hands to larger service,

My Heart to greater loyalty and

My Health to better living,

For my Club, my Community,

my Country and my World”

’Twas a pledge we all took very seriously. Makes me wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to start 4-H clubs all over our city and get the kids going on urban gardening projects. It works. Take it from this old trail blazer.

Back to zinnias. Whether I was imprinted by my profound admiration of Lloyd or the beauty of those big, sturdy and colorful blooms, I instantly became a zinnia fan, as I’ve been ever since. My grandmother, in her studio at the very top of her old (1860) Victorian house, loved painting zinnias. I secretly never thought she was much good until I took an art appreciation course in undergraduate school and studied Impressionism. Live and learn. Grandmother, too, must have helped galvanize my love of zinnias.

There are about six species of zinnias in cultivation in the United States. Only two are commonly grown in our region: Zinnia agustifolia and Z. elegans. Both are annuals. You’ll see them for sale in nurseries, in 4-inch pots, this month. There are many hybrids of both species in an assortment of vivid colors, with flowers, big as sand dollars, small as quarters, in forms from single to overblown double. They bloom prolifically, are great for cutting and will keep coming as long as you keep them watered and fertilize them with a liquid plant food, mixed to manufacturer’s instructions, about every two weeks, July through September. Note: Do not water them overhead. Irrigate them near the soil level, as you do African violets. Overhead watering results in ugly and damaging mildew on the leaves.

I must mention two other species as many of our readers have winter homes in the California desert and Arizona — Zinnia grandiflora and Z. acerosa. Both are perennials, both are native to the Southwest and would be excellent additions to a desert or semi-desert garden. Z. acerosa grows to a height of 6 to 10 inches with a 2-foot spread.

The flowers are 1 1/2-inches wide and, if watered, bloom from spring through fall. If left to go dry, they die back but return when rains start. Z. grandiflora is similar, reaching a foot in height with 1 1/2-inch flowers that are yellow with orange eyes. These are very interesting plants, especially for native lovers, but not as showy as Z. agustifolia and Z. elegans. 

Zinnias are easy to grow from seed in the extreme summers of the Midwest. Trouble is, it’s not easy getting seeds to germinate and plants up and going in the gentle climate of the Pacific Northwest. They need sun and heat. I knew two gardeners who mastered the art. They sowed seed, in the ground, on July 1. At that point the soil temperature is generally 60 degrees, and we have enough warm days, sunshine and reduced rain to get the seeds up and growing. A valiant effort, to be sure, but one must wait for these plants to mature before blooms set. I prefer to buy plants, up and in flower, at the nursery and set them out once we are firmly into summer.

Due to a paucity of full, bright sunlight in my garden, I grow zinnias in large containers, atop my roof deck, where they can face south. There they flourish each year, giving me zinnias to cut and zinnias to look at as we eat dinner up there in our long Northwest summer twilights. They flourish, until frost.

I look at those cheerful blossoms with heartwarming nostalgia. It connects me to my beginnings in the Midwest. It makes me think of 4-H, Lloyd Lutz and my grandmother. So pretty, they make me want to paint a picture.

Lloyd was right. This is summer … in a pot.