Marigolds are plants that deserve a spot in the limelight. With us for centuries, they're one of the easiest annuals to grow and reward with tonnes of colourful flowers throughout the summer. Given its petite stature, it will find a place in the smallest of gardens, balconies or windowbox.
There are two types of marigold - the pot or common marigold, Calendula officinalis, which is a short-lived perennial and can be sown directly outside from March onwards where you would like it to flower. It's not fussy about soil but prefers full sunshine and is very quick to flower from sowing - around two months. The other type are the French and African marigolds (tagetes) - these hail from Mexico and are half-hardy annuals so can only go outdoors after risk of frost is gone. To cultivate these you can sow seed from March onwards indoors. Plant seeds into single, small modules or pots. They like a temperature of 21°C to germinate - a warm kitchen windowsill is ideal. Gently acclimatise seedlings to the outdoors and transplant into a final position in May.
If you're not keen on sowing, there will be plenty of ready-to-go plants in the garden centres but just make sure if you are buying them now that you don't put them outdoors yet - while temperatures have improved hugely, we may get another blast of frost before April is out and this would destroy these tender bedding plants.
A big difference between the French and African tagetes is height - the French are daintier and low-growing, whereas the African are taller with larger flowers. Beyond that, there is a huge variation in colours from creamy whites through lemons, oranges, and reds, combinations of colours with frills and stripes as well as different flower shapes from single to pompon. Smaller varieties work well in pots, containers and hanging baskets as well as trimming the edge of paths and borders. Mix the taller marigolds into a mixed border as part of a warm colour scheme.
They're not just pretty faces, either. Marigolds are widely used in companion planting. This is the practice of using plants alongside crops to help deter pests and diseases. Marigolds are believed to repel aphids and are most often planted with tomato crops. Their flowers also attract hoverflies whose larvae like to hoover up aphids as well. Their roots contain a natural chemical that repels nematodes so they are sometimes used to clean soil before crop planting. They attract bees and butterflies which help pollinate other flower and crops - the single, open-flowered varieties are the most attractive to beneficial insects. They also make good cut flowers, and because they are so easy to germinate, it's a fun project for the inexperienced gardener or to encourage young children to get gardening.
And if all that weren't enough, they're useful in the kitchen as well! Sprinkle their bright petals on salads and soups as a colourful and zingy garnish. When dried, the petals can be used as an inexpensive substitute for saffron to colour and flavour dishes - some people even feed marigolds to their hens to get brighter orange yolks.
To continue with this golden-hued colour theme, St Francis Hospice in Dublin recently launched a brilliant initiative to support their fundraising efforts in this challenging lockdown times - a virtual flower garden. They are inviting supporters to make donations to its Hospice Virtual Garden at www.sfh.ie. So far, in excess of 700 virtual sunflowers have been planted with donators receiving an image of the sunflower that they have grown to share with family and friends. The hospice needs to raise €5.9m annually so helping plant this online garden during our lockdown really does make a difference.