Every year the National Garden Bureau releases recommendations of one flower and one vegetable to be highlighted the following season.
These recommendations come from members of the professional horticulture industry and are chosen because they are popular, easy to grow, widely acceptable and versatile. It makes sense that their choices for 2011 are the zinnia and the tomato.
Putting aside the fact that zinnias are a favorite of Japanese beetles, I love these amazingly colorful flowers. When I played among the rows of my grandmother's garden, there always were rows and rows of zinnias. I never asked why she planted so many in her garden and around her house, nor did I know if she saved seeds every fall or if she bought them from the feed store where she got her seed potatoes, corn and bean seeds. The short, orange marigolds, also a vegetable garden flower, were reserved for the borders, particularly around the tomatoes because their pungent scent is said to repel tomato worms. But zinnias were honored with a spot inside the garden proper and because of their tall stems, they were brought inside to fill vases throughout the house along with Queen Anne's Lace, hawkweed and other wildflowers.
But it was the zinnias that stood out because their colors were so diverse and so vibrant.
Zinnias are members of the Asteraceae (or Composita) family. Since my grandmother's era, many more varieties have been cultivated, making her common ''Cut and Come Again'' blossoms seem old-fashioned. According to the NGB, there are more than a dozen species that include tall, mid-sized and dwarf varieties in a wide array of colors.
The plant got its name from Dr. Johann Gottfried Zinn, who is attributed with writing the first description of the flower, which showed up in Europe some time in the 1700s. It wasn't until the first double-petaled zinnia was developed that they became popular garden flowers, often finding their way into English style gardens.
Zinnias are easy to start from seeds and can be planted indoors four to six weeks before going outside after the last expected frost. They are annuals and won't live through the winter, but their fast growing habit and ability to bloom profusely by mid-summer makes it worth sowing seeds each season.
Zinnias prefer full sun and are drought tolerant, although you'll get the healthiest plants and best blooms if they are watered regularly.
To bring them indoors to fill vases and other arrangements, cut them mid-morning after the dew has evaporated but before the hot mid-day sun sucks the moisture from their petals.
If you've never grown zinnias before, be sure to add them to your seed list for next season. You won't be sorry.
The vegetable selected by the NGB as next year's winning plant is the tomato.
Probably the most popular garden vegetable, few people don't put at least one or two tomato plants somewhere in the garden each season. Even those who don't plant vegetable gardens will put at least one plant around the house. I've even seen them growing among foundation shrubs and beside garages. Everyone waits for that first ripe, homegrown tomato and earns neighborhood bragging rights if their plants come through.
Believed to have originated in the Andes Mountains of South America, these members of the nightshade family were originally grown as ornamentals and believed to be poisonous. Even Thomas Jefferson grew the plants as ornamentals at Monticello in the late 1700s. A college history professor of mine once told a story about Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, who ate a tomato on the front of the local courthouse steps where a large crowd had gathered in hopes of watching him succumb to an agonizing death. When he didn't die, people began growing and eating tomatoes themselves. Whether the story is true or not has never been verified, but it certainly adds a bit of mystery to the most common of our vegetable plants.