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Get Your Hands Off My Tagetes! Growing Marigolds From Seed

Before we listened to this pronunciation video, we thought we were supposed to sound out Tagetes like "Tah-get-dees." Now that we're in the know, we had to toss out this post's original title, "You Got Tagetes Marigold Seeds!" Either one is pretty cheeseball, but it always works out if there's a slightly off-color resolution. Because even though we're a family business—and maybe because of it—we try to maintain a sense of humor around here. And anyway, our kids never read this stuff. They're too busy counting individual seeds down in the dungeon.

Do you need to lighten the mood around your place? Tagetes (or "Tah-JEE-tees") is the genus name for marigold, and nothing evokes sunshine better than these cheerful bright beauties.

Origins, History, and Medicinal Uses

First, let's clear the air: We're not discussing pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) today, but they're similar and also worth checking out. Read this Seed Needs blog post to learn more about calendula. These two plants are often confused.

Marigold is a member of the Asteraceae (Aster) family. Tagetes is a nod to Tages, an important Etruscan prophet. While cultures around the world have their own connection to marigold, the plant is native to the New World ranging from the American Southwest to central Argentina and Chile. However, the plants traveled to Europe with Spanish explorers in the 16th century, and quickly naturalized there and in Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean.

You'll read "marigold" and the plural term "marigolds" here on this blog; both are correct.

Medicinal and cultural significance

The plant's common name is a condensed version of a traditional salute to the Virgin Mary: "Mary's Gold" was the Medieval English name for marigold. Back in those days, Christians and Catholics would plant gardens for the sole purpose of honoring her.

Marigold is culturally significant to both Indians (as in, from actual India) and to indigenous people in North, Central, and South America, All used the gold flowers in festivals and burial rituals.

Long before marigolds gained popularity in the Old World, Aztecs revered them for their purported magical and spiritual qualities. One practical reason for their use in funeral rites here and abroad might be that the flowers and leaves contain powerfully fragrant, insect-repelling oils. Given the high number of biting insect pests in these regions, their effectiveness in keeping them away could have reinforced the idea marigolds are supernatural.

The marigold lobby

In the 1960s, Illinois Senator Everett M. Dirksen, who fought hard for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, also tried to make the marigold the national flower. While he himself was a huge fan of marigolds, the founder of a very large national seed company (definitely not us) doggedly lobbied Sen. Dirksen to advance the cause. Apparently, some seed companies really do everything they can to offload their seed overstock; we at Seed Needs only carry as many seeds as we can sell in any given year. But really, we do agree that given their popularity among many cultures, their native roots, and their many uses, we'd have supported making marigold the national flower. Right now, as of 1986, it's the rose. BO-RING.

Marigold's culinary attributes

If you Google "marigold recipes," you'll find that marigold and calendula are often confused. Calendula's common name is "pot marigold," since it's the plant more likely to be used in the kitchen and some varieties resemble the true marigold. With either flower, the darker the color, the stronger the flavor. Dried marigolds and calendula can substitute for saffron (and are sometimes called "poor man's saffron") and if chickens snack on the leaves, their egg yolks will become a brighter yellow.

Only eat the leaves. You can make a tea from them, use them as a garnish, or boil them to create a natural dye.

The Truth About Marigolds as Pest Control

Many farmers and gardeners swear by marigold's ability to protect neighboring plants from aphids, beetles, and other pests. They're best known for killing nematodes in the soil. The problem? There are good nematodes and bad nematodes, and marigolds don't discriminate; second, the nematode-slaying toxins excreted from marigold roots only affects a negligible area around the plant. For it to have any effect—positive or negative—on companion plants, you'd likely run afoul of crowding issues.

You can read more about nematodes in this recent Seed Needs article; there's even a blurb about their relationship with marigolds.

Third, marigolds actually attract thrips and spider mites to themselves...and possibly to neighboring plants. There's no consistent scientific proof that they serve as pest "magnets," drawing these insects away from other plants. Nor are they certain to repel deer and rabbits from your garden, though mammalian pests definitely leave marigold alone.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence out there that pet- and people-safe herbal solutions made with marigold can repel mosquitoes, and studies show thiophenes, the active compounds found in marigolds kill both larvae and adult Aedes aegyptii and Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes. These are the mosquito species that, respectively, carry malaria and yellow fever.

Our advice is to select for pest-resistant genetics within species known for their hardiness. We're also big fans of rotating garden spaces to break up pest and disease cycles. Healthy soil and healthy plants resist most pest and disease issues. Sure, we could capitalize on the marigold myth, but we're invested in your success as a gardener. Save the BS for fertilizer and look into non-toxic, organic pest control solutions. Marigolds are worth planting for their beauty alone.

Marigolds in the Garden

There are two main marigold species: T. erectus, and T. patula. The former species name means "upright," while the latter means "spreading." Both have nearly identical growing requirements. T. erectus, also known as African marigold, develops larger, two-to-four-inch flowers. The plants themselves can grow to four feet tall and two feet wide. The more compact T. patula—or French marigold—grows six to twelve inches tall, and six to nine inches wide with flowers half the size of the African species.

Both species share the same variety of flower textures and colors. Most all are multi-layered, globular flower heads, with some double-layered varieties such as our Dainty Marietta marigolds (Tagetes patula v. nana). And all marigolds range from a deep rust orange to bright, sunny yellow. Marigolds prolifically bloom from June up until frost.

Marigold's attractive, aromatic foliage is deep green in color, lance-shaped, and deeply lobed. Each leaf can grow as long as six inches. Even without their blossoms, marigold leaves make excellent accents to gardens and cut flower displays. Both species have a mounding and upright growth habit. True to its name, T. patula tends to fill out a horizontal plane a bit more than does T. erecta.

Marigold's ideal environment

Marigolds are annuals in USDA Hardiness Zones 2 through 11, preferring warm, arid climates. Plant them in full sun, though they'll appreciate light afternoon shade in the hottest regions.

Marigold is classified as a "medium moisture" plant and can tolerate drought, but for best results don't let the soil dry out more than a couple inches deep in between waterings. Keep seedlings, container plants, and newly-transplanted marigolds consistently moist.

These forgiving plants tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. Even though marigold can handle clay soils, we recommend you plant it where the water doesn't pool. Dig in some well-aged compost to loosen the soil, improve drainage, and boost available nutrients. The ideal pH range for marigold is between 6.0 and 7.5.

Marigolds are fantastic container plants, but in the garden setting, they're popular choices for edgings and mass plantings.

Maintaining your marigolds

Taller varieties can topple in heavy winds or rain, and their flower heads can stress the integrity of their long stems. Plant marigold near a windbreak, or support them by staking. To develop more compact plants with denser blooms, pinch young plants. Deadhead spent blooms to prolong flowering, or reduce the chances they'll re-seed.

As mentioned above, marigolds can attract spider mites and thrips, though deer and rabbits find them unappetizing. Overly humid air or wet soil can cause foliage fungi, crown rot, and root rot. Yellowing leaves are symptomatic of aster yellows, a nasty, contagious disease easily passed between plants.

After they're frost-killed, dig up the wilted plants. Burn any diseased marigold (get your DIY flamethrower plans here) to prevent the spread of viruses, bacteria, or fungi  Unless you're overloading a healthy, active compost pile with a huge percentage of marigold roots, the good-guy nematode colonies in your piles won't be affected.

Growing Marigolds from Seed

Now, for the easy part! Growing marigolds from seed is easy once you've selected the right spot and poured yourself a nice glass of wine. We recommend starting your marigold seeds indoors to get a jump on the season. Be sure to use biodegradable pots and start them under artificial sunlight, keeping the substrate moist (bottom-watering or with a light spray mist) until the plants have germinated.

  • Seed Treatment: None required.
  • When to Plant Outdoors: Plant marigolds outside when the soil temperatures have reached a consistent 70°F.
  • When to Plant Indoors: Start indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your last spring frost.
  • Seed Depth: Plant marigold seeds on the surface of fine, damp soil; they need sunlight to germinate. Gently press the soil for good contact.
  • Seed Spacing: Plant or thin 8" to 16" apart, depending on the species.
  • Days to Maturity: 45 to 50 days from seeding to bloom.
  • Days to Germination: 7 to 14 at 70°F.

Transplant your marigold starts once the young plants have grown four to six "true" leaves. Soak, score, and transplant the entire biodegradable pot, and keep the surrounding soil moist until the plants become established. Be sure to "pot up" your surplus plants, as they make great, low-maintenance gifts. Don't have any friends? Deliver some marigold sunshine to a nearby retirement facility. You don't even need to stick around to hear anybody's stories about sock hops or the Korean war, unless you're into that sort of thing. Just watch out; some of those wily old coots (and cootettes) will trample one another to grab your perky Tagetes.

Get Your Grubby Hands On Our Marigold Seeds

We at Seed Needs try to set ourselves apart with a family-to-family approach to customer care. Do you want custom seed packets for wedding favors? We can do that! Do you need a specific volume of seeds? Sure! No problem. We've been selling seeds for more than a decade, and while we have our best practices nailed down, we're in that "sweet spot" of flexibility and responsiveness that allows us to provide personalized service...and we're happy to listen if you have questions about our products!
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