Marigolds with their lively south-of-the-border colors are the ultimate garden no-brainer. Just stick them in the ground and they grow. Fast. They go from seed to bloom in about seven weeks here in Maryland. Transplants are even faster.
"They bloom almost immediately," says Don Zeidler, director of direct marketing at W. Atlee Burpee in Warminster, Pa.
Their bright color and quick growth make marigolds perfect for children's gardens, especially since they can get tromped on occasionally without major damage. And they are the Energizer Bunnies of bloom.
"Most slow down in the hottest part of the summer, but they come back and go strong all fall until frost," notes Cindy King, horticulturist at Kingstown Home Farm and Garden Center in Chestertown.
Additionally, marigolds are superb companion plants. Interspersed among the vegetables they help ward off Mexican bean beetles, aphids that attack the squash and tomatoes, and the white moths that morph into chompers of cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower.
"It works like a charm," says Zeidler. Even deer and rabbits tend to leave marigolds alone. "We use them around the outside of the garden too. It seems to keep out pests more than not having them, and you get the added benefit of the colorful border."
Though the pungent scent of marigolds helps deter pests, many find it objectionable, especially in bouquets. So, 20 years ago, breeders tried to come up with scentless varieties. But in the end, they gave up.
"It's no longer a big goal," says Mike Capp, customer service manager at Goldsmith Seeds, a wholesale breeder in Gilroy, Calif. "The scent is part of what makes a marigold a marigold."
But one long-time goal has been met. In 1954, David Burpee offered $10,000 to the first person -- customer or breeder -- to produce a white marigold that could reliably reproduce itself. Iowa gardener Alice Vonk finally won the prize in 1975. Now, Burpee sells three pure white marigolds: 'Snowball,' 'French Vanilla,' and 'Snowdrift.'
Marigold (Tagetes) is native to Central America and Mexico, where the flowers are featured in Day of the Dead (a kind of Memorial Day) celebrations. The two most common marigold types are African or Aztec (Tagetes erecta), the 2-to-3-foot-tall single-color big pompom varieties, and French marigold (T. patula), which are 8 to 12 inches tall with flowers that range from the tiny daisy-like 'Tangerine Gem' to the tightly ruffled Mardi Gras skirts of 'French Brocade.' Though some French varieties are all one color, more often flowers are splashed with bronze, burnt sienna, orange, scarlet, crimson and sunny yellow.
Over the past 15 years, breeders have produced a number of hybrids that meet specific garden needs or tastes. Climax Hybrids are loaded with huge 4-to-5-inch blooms. Signet Marigolds are lacy, foot-tall mounds that smell vaguely like lemon verbena. The Antigua Hybrids are daylight-neutral, which means they bloom in 60 days from seed no matter when they've been sown -- late spring, summer or even very early fall. The short, fat-flowered Inca hybrids bloom about a week sooner than most others and don't slow down, even during summer's scorch. The sentinel-straight American hybrids are also called hedge marigolds, because at 3 feet tall with scores of 5-inch blooms, they make a great anti-critter barrier, while the low-growing French marigolds look like a Mariachi band scuffling along the front of the border. A recent non-hybrid find is 'Cottage Red,' a barely tamed billow of foliage dotted with flame red flowers.
"It doesn't have the traditional pompoms of the yellows and whites," notes Zeidler. "The blooms are smaller and the plant is a much more open, airy style and is nice for a cottage garden."
In addition to the newest offerings, there are some marvelous older varieties that, like the others, simultaneously discourage pests and decorate the garden. Heirloom 'Pinwheel' has broad-striped blood red and egg yolk yellow single blooms, and Cempoalxochitl (pronounced zem-pul-so-chee-tul), an impressive 4-5 footer from Oaxaca, Mexico, sports large, ruffle-petaled saffron flowers. Some, like 'Lemon Gem' (T. tenuifolia), which looks like wads of buttercups, are even edible. And, finally, there's creamy Nematocidal Marigold (T. minuta) which can be grown then turned under to deter soil nematodes, also known as eelworms, which destroy plant roots.
Marigolds love sun and are tolerant of drought. Plant them in any decent garden soil. Give them enough water to start them, deadhead regularly to ensure continuous bloom, then stand back and enjoy.
Kingstown Farm, Home and Garden Center
7121 Church Hill Road
Chestertown, MD 21620
Valley View Farms
11035 York Road
Cockeysville, MD 21030
11300 Baltimore Ave.
Beltsville, MD 20705
Seed Savers Exchange
3094 N. Winn Road
Decorah, IA 52101
W. Atlee Burpee & Co.
300 Park Ave.
Warminster, PA 18991-0001
Seeds of Change
P.O. Box 15700
Santa Fe, NM 87592-1500
Jung's Selected Seeds
335 S. High St.
Randolph, WI 53957-0001