Waiting for Zinnias

Every Autumn, the wait begins again.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY LINDA COOK DEVONA


It’s early October and my zinnias are ugly.

Their stems have grown brown and brittle. Their curled-up leaves are mottled and mildewed. In their glory days, most of the plants were almost as tall as me. Now they’re bent and broken, lying close to the ground as though begging to be run over with the mower. But I can’t say good-bye to the zinnias just yet. I continue to cut every half-decent bloom I can find. I stuff pitiful bouquets into juice glasses and canning jars in a last desperate attempt to hang on to something I’ll be grieving for the next several months:

Summer.

I’ll wait impatiently until Mother’s Day rolls around next year. Then I’ll pull a worn paper sack from the top shelf of my hall closet, where its contents have been kept cool and dry for six long months. I’ll thrust my hand into the sack and gently work my fingers over the deadheaded zinnias inside. Thousands of seeds will fall off and settle at the bottom. I’ll stir and stir those seeds until they’re all mixed up.

Then, one wonderful day, there will appear a fistful of blooms.

Why? Because I love a messy zinnia bed. Lots of different colors. Lots of different sizes. Lots of different varieties, all growing willy-nilly along the rock wall in my backyard.

The ground in front of that wall has been ready and waiting for months. I deadheaded the zinnias after the first frost. Then I pulled up the stems, laid them on the dirt, and covered them with deep piles of chopped leaves. In early Spring, I turned the earth over three different times. Each time I attacked whatever weeds dared to show their faces and then raked the dirt smooth.

On the second Sunday in May, when all danger of frost has passed in my part of Tennessee, I’ll plant. First I’ll wet down the bed with the garden hose. Then I’ll reach into the worn paper sack, pull out a handful
of seeds, and scatter them as though I’m throwing scratch to a flock of chickens. Up and down the length of the flowerbed I’ll go until my sack is empty. I’ll tromp barefoot on the damp earth until all the seeds are buried.

Then I’ll wait.

In about a week or so, green specks will sprout, so tiny I will wonder if they’re a mirage. But sure enough, in a couple of days, I’ll know they’re the real thing. Life has renewed itself. There’ll be zinnias once again.

I’ll keep the fragile plants watered. I’ll thin them where they’re too thick and fill in spots that are too sparse. I’ll weed. I’ll mulch. Then, one wonderful day, there will appear a fistful of blooms. A week later, dozens. Then hundreds. Soon, every room in my house will be filled with zinnia bouquets, and I’ll be reminded why June and July are my favorite months of the year. But August will follow, hot and humid, and my zinnias will begin to wilt and fade. By early Autumn, they’ll be positively ragged. Ugly. In the way.

But I won’t pull them up or mow them down. Not for a while. The zinnias and I will limp toward the cold, dark months together, just as we’ve always done. I’ll cut the last few decent blooms and stuff pitiful bouquets into anything that holds water. Then I’ll wait for the first frost, when I can collect the deadheads.

And begin the blessed cycle all over again.


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