The bright marigolds flanking my doorway and alternating with the vegetables in my garden provide much more than a cheerful bit of color. Indeed, marigold uses are so wide-ranging that their function as decor is almost surpassed by their other services!
Most gardeners are aware that marigolds' pungent flowers and foliage discourage many insects from feasting on nearby crops. But even the odorless varieties are effective: Planted as a border around the garden or in rows next to the vegetables, they act as a trap crop for Japanese beetles. Since those noxious insects like to congregate on the flowers, the gardener simply can shake the collected pests into a can of kerosene, where they'll expire.
Meanwhile, the marigolds are just as hard at work underground, controlling nematodes (those tiny, eel-like worms that attack the roots of plants). While scientists can't explain how the plants affect the subterranean spoilers, they do admit that marigolds are effective! In comparing the soil of two plots, one with marigolds and one without, researchers at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (and at other agricultural labs as well) discovered 75% to 85% fewer nematodes in the flowered plot. Apparently, a substance is exuded from the little plants that deters these almost invisible crop-destroyers.
Toward the end of the growing season, I often pull up most of my marigolds and feed both them and their collection of beetles to the chickens and the pigs. However, the blooms are edible not only for livestock, but for humans, too! Dried and crumbled petals can pinch-hit for oh-so-expensive saffron in casseroles, breads, and omelets, adding a unique, subtle flavor to these dishes. Stir-fried—alone or with vegetables—the petals add zip to any meal. They're also colorful and tasty in rice, soups, or stews, or when sprinkled on salads. Furthermore, the flowers are nutritious! They contain carotene, which can be converted in humans to vitamin A.
I'm always looking for good substitutes for store-bought items, so after trying the petals in cookery, I decided to experiment with them as a tea! To prepare it, I harvested plump flowers and separated the petals from the green calyxes. I put the petals into a warm teapot (2 teaspoons of flowers per cup of liquid), poured just-boiled water over them, steeped the blooms for 5 minutes, and strained out the blossoms.
The brew was beautifully colored, but—as it turned out—bland in flavor. So this year I'm growing quantities of peppermint, which has wonderful flavor but no color worth speaking of. Together, the marigold petals and mint leaves should make a drink that appeals to the senses of both taste and sight!
Marigold balm makes a soothing rub for tired, aching feet. Just put 5 tablespoons of petals into a bowl, covering them with 1 cup of heated (about 120°F) sunflower oil. Let the mixture soak for about 4 hours, then strain the petals through a coarse cloth and store the oil in a jar.
How to Grow Marigolds
In order to have plenty of flowers during the gardening season, I start plants in flats about six to eight weeks before the last spring frost. For dwarf marigolds (which I use in quantity), I prepare four flats about four inches deep, filling them with a mixture of 3 parts garden soil, 1 part sand, 2 parts compost, and 1 part peat moss. I sow the seed thinly and cover the flats with plastic until sprouting occurs.
When the seedlings appear, I place the flats on a sunny windowsill, being careful that they don't burn or dry out. During cloudy weather, I set the plantings under grow-lights for about six hours a day, and if they become crowded, I transplant a few to a separate container.
Meanwhile, I start the seeds of larger marigolds in flats, too, treating them in the same way as I do the dwarf varieties until the second leaves have grown to a good size. I then transplant the bigger plants into individual paper cups filled with soil mix and give them lots of light. And I water all of my flower seedlings with manure tea or fish emulsion once a week.
About a week before the last spring frost, I prepare the bed for my early snap beans and the first flat of dwarf marigolds. I till the area thoroughly, open a deep furrow, and lay about an inch of rough compost in the bottom. Next, I draw an inch of soil over the compost and plant the bean seeds, spacing them about four inches apart. Every three feet or so, I skip a space in the bean planting and set a dwarf marigold seedling in the furrow instead. The bean seeds are then covered with an inch of soil, and the dirt is firmed around the flowers.
Setting marigold plants—not seeds—in with the beans helps mark the rows and insures that the flowers will bloom in time to protect the emerging bean pods. (The cheery garden helpers have more bug-repelling power when they're in bloom.)
One week after that first planting—and again the following week—I repeat the procedure until I have all my rows of "marigolded" beans in the ground. About that time, I also set out tomato plants, spacing them approximately three feet apart in the row. In every other gap between the staked vines, I set a tall variety of marigold, with basil, borage, or collards filling the additional space.
As soon as I finish putting in the vegetable garden, I seed marigolds into my ornamental plots. Adding a thin mulch of straw or hay to this seeded bed helps keep moisture in and sprout-eating birds away.
My marigolds brighten the landscape of my South Carolina home throughout the summer and fall, right up to the first frost, and often beyond. (I've enjoyed the blooms until Thanksgiving in years when I've planted some in a sheltered location and covered them against the chilly nights.)
Finally, I harvest flowers for drying during September and October, leaving the rest of the plants to provide a bit of protection for fall/winter cole crops as theyget their start. The dried petals can be used—just like the fresh ones—for cooking and dyeing, and as colorful additions to potpourris.
Truly, this little flower's virtues are legion!