Ask a Master Gardener: Merry, merry marigolds

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Marigolds come in a variety of colors, sizes and heights, attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and are easy to grow.

(Posted May 13, 2021)

Harriet Dana, Madison County Master Gardener

Spring has arrived. You’re itching to go to the garden center. You want to make a colorful splash. You want to impress the neighbors. You also want to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. But the last thing you want is to commit to hours “babying” fussy flowers. What to plant? Marigolds!

Marigolds are very fragrant, especially when the leaves are crushed. They are often planted to repel insects. (When visiting India, we were handed marigold “leis” to ward off flying insects.) Marigolds are very tolerant of deer and central Ohio’s heavy clay soil. They like to be planted in a sunny spot (six-plus hours of sunlight), and they like to be watered occasionally, especially during summer dry spells. To improve the appearance and promote more flowering, cut off the old seed heads periodically through the summer.

There are several types of marigolds:  American or African (Tagetes erecta), French (Tagetes patula), triploid hybrids (Tagetes erecta x Tagetes patula) and signet (Tagetes tenuifolia). All varieties are annuals, which means you need to plan them every year, bloom throughout the summer, and die after fall’s first frost.

The American or African marigold (T. erecta) is tall (1 to 3 ft.) and has large globular (2-4”) flower heads in shades of yellow, orange, bicolored or white. Although often called “African,” this plant is native to Mexico and Central America. Because of its height, the American marigold needs to be planted toward the back of the flowerbed and may require staking.

The French marigold (T. patula) is compact and typically grows 0.5 to 1 foot tall.  Its flower can be single, semi-double, double, or crested and comes in shades of orange, yellow, red and bicolor. It, too, is native to Mexico and Central America.

Triploid hybrids combine the large flowers of the American marigold with the compact size of the French marigold. These vigorous hybrids, which appear to be unaffected by intense summer heat, grow 10 to 18 inches tall, and their flowers are typically 2 to 3 inches. The lesser known signet marigold (T. tenuifolia) has smaller flowers and leaves than other marigolds. It, too, comes in yellow, orange, gold or bicolored.  Its height will be about 1 to 2 feet.

You can start marigolds from seed four to six weeks prior to the last frost day, usually around the first week of April, or you can wait until the soil is warm and sow the seeds directly into the ground. A third option is to purchase seedling plants at your favorite garden store and plant after Mother’s Day. Each plant will create a mound. Seedlings should be planted about a foot apart to allow for ample bushing.

Marigolds have few problems. The most common pest is mites, which causes the leaves to lose their green color and have a web-like appearance. Occasionally, especially during wet weather, Botrytis blight causes the flowers to turn brown with a gray mold. Should this happen, pick off and destroy the infected flowers.

Merry, merry planting – marigolds!

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