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Marigolds are one of the most popular annual flowers, easily grown from seed or transplant, and when given the right conditions will overflow with bright blossoms that fill the garden with cheerful color. Marigolds are equally suitable for containers, as they are in the garden, and are even grown as a long-lasting cut flower, with a clean, crisp scent.
Tagetes are a genus of the sunflower family, native to North and South America, and vary in size from low edging plants averaging 5-inches high, to as tall as 3-foot high. Blooms range in mostly solid colors of orange, golden yellow, and white, sometimes with decorative darker highlights along petals edge. While most Marigolds are grown as annuals, there are some perennial species that will survive in warmer climates.
With over 50 species of marigold available, three dominate the bedding flower market:
The common English name is derived from “Mary’s Gold”, yet the Latin name Tagetes is from the Roman mythology, named after Tages who was the founding prophet of the Etruscan religion, who according to legend, appeared at plow-time and taught the Etruscans divination. Perhaps for this reason, Tagetes took its namesake because it grows well in almost any sort of soil, with unusual tolerance to drought.
In pre-Hispanic Mexico, Marigolds were regarded as the flower of the dead, which led to their frequent use in the Day of the Dead celebrations held each year in the fall to remember friends and family who have died.
In Nepal, marigolds are highly celebrated and called “hundred-leafed flower", referring to its many petals per blossom head. It is the main flower used in garlands and decorations at weddings, festivals and religious events.
The most common variety of Tagetes is African marigold (T. erecta), although not native to Africa, and mostly bred as cut flowers. The French Marigold (T.patula) was developed in France, although also not native to the country.
The Signet marigolds (T. tenuifolia) were derived from the wild form that is widespread across most of Mexico, Central America and Peru. Another lesser known a variety is T. minuta which is grown primarily for the foliage and used as a culinary herb in Peru and Ecuador, commonly sold in Latin grocery stores in a bottle paste format known as black mint paste.
Because of the pungent scent of some varieties, Marigolds are especially good for repelling insects and pests from garden plants, and as a companion plant for tomatoes, eggplant, chili pepper, and potatoes.
Due to the antibacterial thiophenes contained in the roots, it should not be planted near legumes crops.
The blossoms are rich in orange and yellow carotenoids, used in food coloring and as a natural dye for fabrics and wools. Marigolds are a host plant for some Lepidoptera caterpillars, and as a valuable source of nectar for butterflies, a strong reason to add marigolds to a butterfly garden planting.
Since seeds are easy to plant, and germinate quickly, they are frequently used in a children’s gardens. Marigolds are one of the most popular, and ubiquitous bedding plant available in nurseries, sold in the spring throughout the US.
Seeds sown directly in the garden should be placed 1 inch apart and will bloom approximately 10 weeks after sowing. When transplanting, allow 8 to 10 inches between plants, or 10-12 inches apart for the larger African varieties.
One of the reasons marigolds are so popular is because they do not require as much deadheading as other annuals, although removed dead blossoms will encourage new blossoms and new stems that add the overall appearance. Mulch is optional for young plants when they are first transplanted, yet it will keep roots moist, and discourage weeds.
Marigolds require moderately fertile soil, and full sun conditions in order to thrive. Sow directly in the garden, after danger of frost is past, or start indoors in seed trays 4 weeks before frost-free date, and transplant into the garden.
Spacing between plants will vary depending on the variety, yet one plant can easily grow a 6”-12” wide if flowers are kept trimmed and plants are given ample fertilizer to stimulate growth. Too much fertilizer will stimulate lush foliage, however, at the expense of flowers. Allow plenty of air circulation between plants to avoid rot in wet weather.
Marigolds are particularly practical in containers, as they prefer the soil to dry out in between watering, yet can also be finicky, and do not like water from overhead, so instead water at the base of the plant.
Marigolds are the ultimate deer-resistant plant, with a strong fragrance to the foliage and flowers that repels most invasive, while the roots repel nematodes under the soil. The foliage may be prone to gray mold or leaf spot, and powdery mildew, while young plants can often develop damping off disease if overwatered and not given ample air circulation between other plants.
Once established, marigolds grow rapidly especially if planted in full sun, and can even handle dry, overly hot environments. They will tolerate some shade, which is preferable in regions where summers are extremely hot.
About the Author: Ellen Ecker Ogden is the author of six books, including The Complete Kitchen Garden, featuring theme gardens and recipes for cooks who love to garden. She writes and lectures on kitchen garden design. You can find her online at www.ellenogden.com
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