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I have a particular affection for marigolds. When our daughter Kim was growing up, she had a basketball goal near one of my flower beds, which, during my early years of gardening, I usually filled with marigolds. When her dad and she played one-on-one, the ball often landed smack in the middle of flowerbed, which released a pungent odor distinctive to the tough little gold annual.

Kim hated it when the ball rolled into the marigolds, she later told me, because “they made the ball smell funny.” Which only encouraged her Dad to purposely roll the ball into the beds at least once per hoops session, just to drive her crazy.

Far from being driven mad by the scent of marigolds, I am charmed. It brings back memories of family afternoons spent in the back yard during spring and summer.

Most marigolds fall under two categories: African and French. The African marigold is that taller, stately one with the carnation-like bloom heads. Typically, they produce somewhat fewer blooms, but what a  show they make — large pompoms of yellow, orange, red, and even creamy white, often with mixed colors.

The French marigolds are the ones we most often find in the garden center, with the same coloration of African marigolds, but with smaller flowers, most of them with flatter, single blooms. Those that we call double-blooming marigolds are actually triploids, a cross between African and French marigolds. The French variety can be anywhere from six inches to almost two feet.

I still grow marigolds for several reasons:

  • First, they are easy to manage. Put them in the ground and give them the occasional watering during drought, and that’s it. I also like to remove the spent seedheads to keep them looking fresh and neat.
  • They take the Southern summer sun and heat without a whimper.
  • They’re a cheerful presence in the garden, like sunshine on a stem.
  • They look lovely massed whereever you can give them plenty of sun.
  • Marigolds help repel a few garden pests — that pungent aroma at work, perhaps?
  • Tiny warriors of the garden, marigolds continue to bloom, even when other plants seem exhausted by late-summer heat.
  • Because of family history, the smell of marigolds is synonymous with summer for me.

My mother, an avid gardener, was no-nonsense. She seldom planted just for ornament. When we cultivated the family vegetable garden, she chose the usual suspects: okra, corn, onions, radishes, potatoes, squash, cabbage, and tomatoes. Among those tomatoes were splashes of yellow and orange — marigolds, lovely and practical.

Why? They help to deter whiteflies, aphids, and nematodes, she explained. (Experts don’t always agree. Read this andthis.)

I finally planted my tomatoes the other day, a couple of weeks later than usual. But among those tomatoes I also planted, of course, marigolds. I wouldn’t dream of leaving out the tomatoes’ little companions. My mother would be scandalized.

In the Southern garden, they are ubiquitous. Just look at Franklin Flower Basket’s logo.

Posted by Faye Green, retired Nashville English teacher, Shakespeare fan, and master gardener extraordinaire.