Garden Q&A: What is this flower?

For The Baltimore Sun

What is this flower? We love it and let it reseed every year. We call it orange zinnia, but it gets easily 6 feet tall and we suspect it isn’t really a zinnia. Butterflies and hummingbirds like it, and I think little birds eat the seeds, too.

Tithonia rotundifolia, commonly known as Mexican sunflower, is native to Mexico and Central America, but it flourishes in hot locations, dry to medium moisture and grows through much of the U.S. Place in plenty of sun. It’s adapted to poor soil. An annual, tithonia will reseed itself, but you can also collect seed and start transplants indoors next spring. Deadheading prolongs bloom of the 3-inch flowers. No disease or pest issues, including deer.

We aerated our lawn last fall. Should we aerate again this fall or next spring? I plan to overseed my lawn (after I aerate, assuming fall is a good time). Do I mow before I aerate and seed? When can I mow afterward?

There is no absolute rule about how often to aerate a lawn. It depends on the situation. If your lawn gets a lot of foot traffic compacting the soil, then yearly or biennial aeration is recommended. Another time to aerate is when you overseed. After aerating machines pull out the plugs of soil, seed-to-soil contact increases, which in turn increases seed germination. For new lawns (especially of new homes), aeration and overseeding for at least two to three years is a good idea. Avoid aerating in spring when weed seeds are germinating. Fall is best. Fall is also best for seeding and fertilizing. (Fertilizer helps lawns recover from summer stress and develop deeper root systems.) Mow before you aerate and overseed, lowering the cutting height by about 1/2 inch to 1 inch. After seeds have germinated, wait a minimum of three weeks before mowing. Use sharp blades and raise the mowing height back up to at least 3 inches. Search “lawn renovation” on the HGIC website.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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