QUESTION: How do I keep my beautiful zinnias from getting powdery mildew? It may be too late for this year, but what should I do different next year?
Powdery mildew is a fungus that thrives when nights are moderately cool and foliage stays damp. It travels by airborne spores, and appears as gray or white splotches on leaves, stems and flowers of susceptible plants, such as zinnias. A mild case is merely unattractive; a severe case of powdery mildew can cause distorted shoots and leaves, misshapen flowers or can prevent flowering altogether.
The best defense is to give zinnias room to grow without crowding, which allows air to circulate better around the plants, and water only in the morning, so the foliage has time to dry before nightfall. Cut back on the use of high-nitrogen fertilizer, which produces succulent new growth that is a major powdery mildew magnet. Grow them in full sun; hot temperatures (above 90 degrees) inhibit the growth of mildew.
There are fungicides available that should be applied as soon as you begin to spot the mildew (so yes, probably too late for this year), but I always suggest trying the good-cultural-practices method first. The University of Tennessee Extension has a short list in a publication about powdery mildew here. If you decide to go that route, be sure to read and follow directions on the product label.
Zinnias are not the only things plagued by powdery mildew. Lilacs, roses, crepe myrtles and other woody ornamentals, and many herbaceous ornamentals and bedding plants are also targets when weather conditions favor the fungus.