Mon Potager

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Outside my backdoor is my kitchen garden or potager. This area is really more an herb garden now with a newer kitchen garden not too far away. Having the herbs right outside the kitchen door makes snipping fresh herbs for cooking so easy, even when winter brings early sunsets.

Potager, or a traditional kitchen garden, is a mix of edibles and non-edibles, flowers, herbs and vegetables. Some you will find to be very ornate, geometrical designs hedged with trimmed boxwoods. Mine, not so much. For the most part, the small area I call my kitchen garden is inhabited by frequently consumed edibles (in my household) such as green onions, lettuces, chards, radishes, spinach and mustards. Zinnias brighten the border and provide some companion benefits for certain vegetables.

Bright, bold zinnias are perfect vegetable garden companions. Photo courtesy Flickr/Scot Nelson

If you hanker for easy, cheap and fast color – zinnias are your answer! Never boring, the bold zinnia rainbow of colors includes pinks, reds, oranges and yellow faces to brighten your garden wherever you plant these beauties. Want something less intense? Zinnias also come in white, pastels, and a wonderful chartreuse as well as multi- and bi-colors. Plant heights range from 18 to 36 inches. Then there are the multitude off shapes and flower forms including single, double, semi-double, quilled, cactus, pom-pom, crested and dahlia. Whew, so many to choose from!

Zinnias starts transplant well, and they also grow easily from seed in well-drained soil (Zones 2-11). Seeds give you myriad choices not found in store-bought transplants. Just be sure to plant in a sunny location, according to packet directions, and about four to six weeks before your last frost date. You could also get ahead of the game by starting your own transplants indoors; also four to six weeks before last frost. Remember, zinnias like warm weather. Fertilizing and watering regularly along with dead-heading old blooms will keep your zinnias blooming from mid to late summer.

Not just another pretty face in your garden, zinnia’s colors and nectar attract predators (that feast on undesirable insects) and pollinators. Hummingbirds love zinnia nectar and will thank you by eating white flies that go after tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers. Butterflies flock to zinnias for the same reasons as the hummers, as do bees, predatory wasps and hover flies. Zinnias have an additional effect of deterring tomato worms and cucumber beetles, and they are deer resistant to boot!

Zinnias attract and nourish many garden helpers like this hummingbird. Photo courtesy Flickr/Amy Ashcroft

I said zinnias were easy to grow but they are not without potential problems. Aphids and spider mites are the most commons pests you will encounter with zinnias. Nothing insecticidal soap can’t fix.

Powdery mildew (PM) is the main disease affecting these plants, and it loves humidity, usually rearing its ugly head later in the growing season. This fungal disease (different species of the order Erysiphales for inquiring minds) looks like its name – a whitish or light gray powdery film appears on leaves and stems and can make your beauties look just plain awful. Not only does it look bad, PM interferes with the plant’s photosynthesis and gas exchange. Not good.

Since the spores of PM are everywhere in the environment, preemptive actions are important to prevent the environment conducive to an outbreak. First, do not water at night. Second, space your plants to provide adequate air flow and ventilation. If you have ongoing problems with PM, there are cultivars that less prone or have shown resistance to PM.

Powdery mildew is the most common disease in zinnias. Photo courtesy Flickr/Frank Boston

There are some easy spray options to run interference:

  • 1 tablespoon baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) in 1 gallon water with a few drops of environment-friendly dish soap. Spray plant weekly.

  • The scientist jury is still out on exactly why this works but cow’s milk sprays have been found to be very effective in preventing PM. I have seen varying dilutions from 10 percent to 40 percent milk to water, sprayed on a sunny day and repeated every seven to 10 days. It is believed the milk’s protein is the soldier in this war so no worries about skim versus 1 percent, 2 percent or whole, because for once is not about the fat.

  • Garlic’s antifungal properties to the rescue! Blend two whole bulbs (not the little cloves) of garlic with a few drops of environment-friendly dish soap in a quart of water. Strain out the solids and dilute 1:10 with water. Keep unused extract refrigerated.

  • The bacteria Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus pumilis are available in folar spray biological fungicides for the control of PM. For those seed savers out there be advised zinnias love, love, love to cross-pollinate so be prepared for ensuing surprises.

I would love to hear your powdery mildew battle success stories, please do share.