Planting marigolds, for Day of the Dead and beyond

Marigolds were on double duty all summer long, brightening the garden while repelling pests -- aphids above-ground and root knot nematodes in the soil. Now that Day of the Dead is around the corner, marigolds’ next-to-last job is at hand: The petals will get scattered into bright orange pathways on Nov. 2, so spirits can follow the trail to an altar stocked with the pleasures of our material world.

Marigolds originated in the Americas, from the American Southwest down to Peru. Revered by the Aztecs, marigolds were exported to Europe by explorers and quickly spread to Africa and Asia. On the Indian subcontinent, they are the flower of choice for garlands for temple gods.

The genus Tagetes to which marigolds belong has scores of species, none of which should be confused with the pot marigold, which is a different genus, Calendula.

The color palette for Tagetes can run from pale yellow to bright orange and red. The flowers are often planted as low bushes, typically interplanted in edible gardens to ward off pests. Some varieties can grow into a hedge. African varieties can get 3 feet high, producing in-your-face puffballs. Just don’t expect the flowers to pull in bees. The bouquet, blossom structure and low pollen count aren’t bee-friendly.


Butterflies, however, love marigolds. So do chickens, and farmers often add marigolds to the feed, producing a more richly colored yolk. Bakers sprinkle the flower petals on cakes, bartenders scatter them onto white sangria. At the Growing Experience urban farm and community garden at the Carmelitos housing development in north Long Beach, master gardener Manuel Cisneros uses Mexican marigold, a more pungent variety, as a pest barrier, training it into a hedge.

You’ll find seedlings at most nurseries, but marigolds also can be started from seed. Marigolds are remarkably easy to grow, tolerating dry conditions. Avoid fertilizing the plant, and you’ll promote flowers instead of leaf growth. Pick off the youngest buds to produce more blossoms later.

Marigolds’ final gift? Chop up the plant at the end of the season and turn it into the soil. The nematode-repelling compounds contained in the roots will continue to have their effect during decomposition.

The Global Garden is our series looking at a world of cultures through the lens of our landscapes. Past installments



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