To admire marigolds in all their glory, you have two equally beautiful options.
You could travel to the marigold's horticultural epicenter, the city of Oaxaca in south-central Mexico. In late fall, when the townsfolk celebrate the Day of the Dead ― which happens to coincide with marigolds' peak bloom ― the city glows with the flowers in every conceivable combination of yellow, gold, orange, and russet, says Howard Shapiro, vice president of agriculture at Seeds of Change and an ardent marigold admirer. The breadth of the genus is stunning, he says. "There are literally tens of thousands of varieties."
The other option is much closer to home. Simply head to your local garden center and cast your eyes on the glowing array of marigolds. Fill up a cart with your favorites, then plant them in beds, borders, or pots. The flower show starts almost immediately.
Marigolds, you see, are made for summer. To meet the demands of their native lands ― chiefly Mexico and Central America ― members of the marigold family (genus Tagetes) had to flourish in hot sun as well as tolerate poor soils and infrequent rain. These qualities make them one of the most foolproof summer annuals, whether you plant them in the ground or in a container. The taller varieties make long-lasting cut flowers, and the petals of signet types are edible. The leaves have another bonus: Like other plants whose foliage contains volatile oils, such as lavender and rosemary, marigolds seem to repel many harmful insects while attracting beneficial ones. This makes them excellent for planting among summer vegetables.
While some gardeners don't like the smell of marigolds, they're perfume to Shapiro. He finds their scent "rich, complex ― absolutely intoxicating." The perfume industry seems to agree: It uses marigold oil the way it does musk, to add depth to fragrances.
Keep the flowers coming
To prolong bloom on African and French marigolds, remove spent flowers regularly. Pinch the stem under the flower head firmly and give it a snap. For tall African types, avoid overhead sprinkling ― the double flowers can catch so much water that the stems break under the weight.
Signet marigolds aren't commonly used in hanging containers, but their soft, mounding habit and attractive, ferny foliage are well-suited for aerial display. Here, Sunset test garden coordinator Bud Stuckey paired a bicolored signet called 'Paprika' (top) with orange-red Lantana 'Radiation' (center) and parrot's beak (Lotus berthelotii; bottom), whose trailing silver-gray stems are dotted with flowers that look like tiny flames. He used a terra-cotta pot (13 in. wide and 9 in. deep) and suspended it with metal twist hangers.
A nursery shopper's guide to marigolds
Most marigolds sold by nurseries fall into one of the three types described below. In late spring and early summer, you'll find a dazzling selection in sixpacks and 4-inch containers. Buy healthy plants loaded with unopened buds. If you can't find all the kinds you like, especially bushy heirloom types, two good seed sources are Nichols Garden Nursery ( www.nicholsgardennursery.com or 800/422-3985) and Seeds of Change ( www.seedsofchange.com or 888/762-7333). If starting from seed, sow seeds directly in the ground in a sunny spot when soil temperatures reach 70°.