Sunday, August 20, 2006


What’s blooming in the area: Apache plume, winterfat, lance-leaf yellow brush, datura, buffalo gourd, golden eye, tahokia daisy, stickleaf, white evening primrose, velvetweed, horseweed, toothed spurge colonies along road, pigweed, ragweed, white sweet clover, golden hairy aster, goldenrod, bigleaf globeflower in full bloom, purple mat, bindweed, roses, sweet pea, more purple phlox, bouncing Bess, crackerjack marigold hedge, canna, heavenly blue morning glory, cardinal climber, trumpet creeper, silverlace vine, Maximilian and native sunflowers, muhly ring and black gramma grasses. Heads bent from weight of oil in farmer’s sunflowers.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Black-eyed Susan, blanket flower, lance-leaf coreopsis, chocolate flower, perky Sue, Hartweg evening primrose, fern-leaf yarrow, Mexican hat, yellow cosmos, creeping zinnia, butterfly weed, chrysanthemum, miniature roses (Sunrise, Rise and Shine).

Looking east: Yellow evening primrose, garlic chives, California poppy, winecup, floribunda (Fashion), large flowered soapwort, pink bachelor button, Shirley poppy, sweet alyssum.

Looking south: Zinnia, crimson rambler morning glory, sensation cosmos, blaze, rugosa and rugosa hybrid (Elisio) roses, tamarix.

Looking west: Perennial four o’clock, purple coneflower, white phlox (David), white spurge, larkspur, frikarti aster, lead plant, catmint, sea lavender, Russian sage, ladybells, purple ice plant, caryopteris.

Bedding plants: Dalhburg daisies, marigolds, sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunias, profusion zinnia. First ripe tomatoes (supersweet 100).

Animal sightings: Hummingbird on yellow zinnia, woodpecker on utility pole, bees, ants, grasshoppers, mosquitoes, sheep, beef cattle.

Weather: Rain Sunday and Monday nights, then again yesterday and early this morning; mid-week storms missed the area, but dew formed at night. Severe erosion into the near arroyo on the side where the shoulder was cleared. A backhoe upended the culvert dumping into the arroyo on other side, perhaps helping breed the mosquitoes that have been nastier than usual.

Weekly update: It’s county fair time back home in Michigan. My first year in 4-H that meant a jar of zinnias for opening day.

I don’t know why Zinnia elegans were proscribed for first year gardeners. The obvious reasons are they bloom during fair weeks, survive for judging as cut flowers and are reputed to be easy for children to grow. Just as important, seed companies had been promoting them for years.

My mother saved a Thompson and Morgan catalog from that year, probably one I requested for the 4-H project. They were offering Lilliput, which Peter Henderson had introduced here in 1910, and a number of the tall, large flowered varieties that John Bodger and David Burpee began introducing in 1920.

When I moved back to Michigan, I celebrated with my childhood plants. Most died before they were put out. I tried seeds. Few germinated. Only Cut and Come Again bloomed, once.

I was no more successful with zinnias when I moved to New Mexico. But someone down the road scattered seeds outside the wall of a new house, possibly the five packets for a dollar kind. This time of the year, it was a solid mass of 3' high, bright flowers.

They could grow here. And they had to come from seeds. Bedding plants still don’t survive for me, and the stores that carry them don’t have much better luck keeping them alive long enough to sell. As a result, nurseries are shipping single pots, and this year the local hardware was charging $2.00 a plant.

The most common potted varieties have been State Fair and Peter Pan. Ferry-Morse used colchicine to double the number of chromosomes in the first large-flowered tetraploid zinnia in the 1950s. John Mondry developed the dwarf after he noticed a plant with no male parts that was easy to pollinate in the Burpee test gardens. The first F1 hybrid was introduced in 1971.

Periodically, new varieties are marketed as improvements on the two. Oklahoma and Benary Giants haven’t made it to my local stores. Dasher and Magellan died as quickly as Peter Pan.

Since I have no memories of absolute failure in 4-H, I must have grown some zinnias that first year, no matter how few, and I kept wondering why I had worse problems as an adult. I thought maybe seed companies were more interested in commercial growers than people like me, and the seeds they produced required more uniform conditions than nature provided.

Stokes Seeds warns commercial growers the only seeds they should sow outside are open-pollinated ones. The only ones it explicitly identifies as OP are Burpeeana. Not even Burpee still sells them.

Each year, I buy a number of affordable varieties from both retail and mail order sources. Paintbrush bloomed in 1995, Lollipop, Lilliput and Thumbelina in 1997, Burpeeana Giant in 1999, Lilliput in 2001, Lilliput and Cut and Come Again in 2003, Thumbelina last year. But none bloomed very much, nothing could be predicted, and some years nothing happened at all.

This year I have the zinnias I was promised when I was ten. The days turned warm early, but the evenings remained cool. I sowed Lilliput, Thumbelina, and some tall varieties on May 20. Within a week the drawfs germinated, and they kept coming up.

Then, the plants went all but dormant at about 3" high until the rains of July. They resumed growing and put out their first flowers July 20. The first double yellow dahlia heads appeared two days later. Almost to the day, the promised 60 days from sowing.

So far as I can tell, the first dwarfs looked like pictures of Thumbelina, which Bodger introduced in 1963. Since, more have opened with the full domes of Lilliput. With time some singles have appeared among the taller double plants. The variation could be different seedsmen, or both Canary Bird and Benary Golden Yellow germinated.

I may finally have a gaudy garden, but my flowers are small and the stems short. In the village, two people sowed the larger, more traditional plants, and have flamboyant borders. They are the ones who would win blue ribbons. My consolation prize is wondering what will work next year, if I should ignore the frost warnings and plant before the days get long, if the fence will moderate the winds, if I’ve finally found the right sources and varieties, or if it’s all just a midway ring toss.

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