Plant Spotlight: Marigolds

Ah, the humble marigold. With barely a thought, I always seem to pick up some marigolds whenever I’m starting a new garden.

These sweet flowers are basic yet hardy and cheerful. They’re one of the staples of my front yard garden, where I’ve focused on pink, yellow, and orange. I rely on gaura for the much of the pink in my yard, and the marigolds really pack the orange punch.

As a reminder, I live in zone 9b, so your experiences may differ from mine.

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Marigolds are hardy in zones 2-11. Holy cow, that’s a huge spread! They also tolerate almost any kind of soil and bloom from spring through autumn.

Mums are sometimes considered the fall flower, but in warmer climates like mine, it can be difficult to keep mums alive through October. The marigold is an excellent substitute that provides the rich orange blooms many of long for when autumn arrives.

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Marigolds also look super charming with white picket fences (though I should really work on deadheading, yeesh).

The main three species of marigold are African, French, and signet. The ones I’ve seen most often in stores near me are the French variety, which range from 6 inches to 2 feet tall.

I have to admit, one of the main reasons I have so many marigolds in my front yard (a few dozen) is my local home improvement store had a ton of them on the clearance racks – $1 or less for 6 plants. Much of my front yard garden was built from those clearance racks, actually, and I filled in the rest with seeds and a few bulbs. A beautiful garden doesn’t have to be an expensive one!

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This is a small portion of the clearance plants I collected as I built the garden.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is clearance plants tend to look a little rough. The marigolds I picked up sometimes only had 5 out of the pack of 6 plants still alive. But under the right conditions (in my yard, that means blazing subtropical sun and twice-a-day watering in the summer via soaker hose), they’ll become lush little bushes of color.

Highlights:

  • Flower colors can range from yellow to maroon.
  • In warm regions, they can live year-round. In colder, if the deadheads drop to the ground, they can self-seed.
  • Hardy.
  • To prevent rot on flowers and powdery mildew on leaves, water from below

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Wherever or Whatever Your Home, Plant a Garden

Scroll through the gardening subreddit, and you’ll see a variety of gardens. Some users own vast spans of land in lush, green countryside. Others live in the desert or at the base of rocky mountains. More than a few post photos of tiny gardens along windowsills in offices or a collection of pots along a balcony.

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I’ve been spoiled. For almost all of my life, I’ve had ground in which to dig. There were a few exceptions – my college dorm and the apartment in which I resided in Pittsburgh – but for the most part, gardening for me was as simple as choosing a spot with good sun, digging a hole, and tucking in a pansy or a tomato plant.

People are drawn to nature. Studies have shown that being around plants calms us, increases our concentration, decreases our stress, and fosters our compassion for others. Caring for something living makes us feel more alive and connected to the world. My friends who have houseplants speak of forgetting to water them in the same guilt-ridden tone as if they’d forgotten to give their dog breakfast. Most plants, however, have the benefit of not needing attention more than once a day, if that.

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Let’s break this down even further. Whether it’s one ficus or an acre of sunflowers, caring for plants calls us to act (consciously or not) in several ways that can positively extend through the rest our lives:

Responsibility

Someone or something depends on us, and we are important to them or it. Without us, that person or thing will wither. At the end of the day, we all need to feel needed.

Compassion

By embracing responsibility for something even as small as a plant, we practice compassion. Like my friends who forgot to water their houseplant a few paragraphs above, by physically caring for something, we also learn to emotionally care for that thing.

Mindfulness

One of the ways gardens calm us is by encouraging a state of mindfulness, which roots us in the present. Gardening revives the senses and surrounds us with sensations – a prickly leaf, the refreshing scent of lemon grass, dew drops shining in the sun. Working with plants forces us to be slow and attentive.

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Fortunately, even just looking at nature or going for a walk can provide some of the same calming, de-stressing power of gardening. Even the photos in this post should give you a little boost – searching for them gave me one! But there’s really nothing like the hands-on work of caring for your own plants.

When I lived in that apartment in Pittsburgh, I felt chained in. I really missed having a little bit of yard in which to dig around. And I’m kicking myself now because I barely made any attempt at a patio garden. I figured it wouldn’t work because I only knew how to grow things in the ground. But since I’ve lived in my house, I’ve grown things in raised and ground-level beds, in pots and troughs and hay baskets, in cheap plastic cups and specialized water-retaining planters. In doing so, I’ve come to realize that the set-up tends to be the same, no matter where you grow:

1. Study Your Location

How much space do you have? Is there full sun? Shade? Sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon? Is the soil soggy or sandy? Is it a place where squirrels like to dig? Or do you have pets that will want to nibble on the plant? At the very least, you’ll need to know space, light, water, and “predators.”

2. Know Your Resources

If you only have one store nearby that sells plants, it can be frustrating to build a huge list of amazing plants based off of internet research, and then arrive at the store to find nothing like what you hoped. Therefore, it’s helpful to have some idea of what’s in stock nearby. Of course, you can order plants online, but like anything else, if you’re just getting started, it’s a good idea to see the plants first-hand. Home improvement stores like Lowes and Home Depot will have a selection, but I also see plants outside grocery stores and pet stores. Farmers markets can also be a good source, particularly because they’ll probably have plants that grow well locally and are in-season.

3. Bigger Can Be Better

For folks just entering the garden game, stick to mature plants. Seedlings and seeds might be cheaper, but it’s really frustrating to nurture a seed only for it to die because you watered it a little too much. Mature plants are a lot more forgiving and you need fewer resources. It’s totally find to stick to them forever, but for the serious gardener, growing things from seed can be a fun and gratifying challenge. Keep in mind that depending on what you’re growing, seeds might require additional equipment – a humidity cover, seedling soil, etc.

4. Protect Your Plant

Protection means everything from mulching to fencing to hanging an indoor plant out of a curious cat’s reach. Unfortunately, sometimes you aren’t aware of dangers to your plant until after it’s in the ground (and you suddenly discover that squirrels just love to dig in that patch of earth to bury their nuts). But hey, you’re checking on it regularly anyway, right? So you’ll be able to adapt and help that plant thrive.

Much of the rest is just knowing your plant. Succulents needs much less water than bushy flowers with thin leaves. Butterfly bush roots will rot in boggy soil. The first year may be a rough one, but the second year will be easier.

You’ll learn and a little bud of pride will bloom in your heart.

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Plant Spotlight: Gaura

Since gardening is a huge part of my life and this blog, I figured I’d start sharing a few of my favorite plants.

I live in growing zone 9b, so your experiences may differ from mine.

First up is a perennial that I’ve loved since childhood. Gaura was one of the first plants I grew when my mom set aside a corner of the yard for me to garden. I remember picking it for the wispy stems and the name, which I’m almost certain had the word “fairy” in it somewhere (I was really into fairies as a kid). However, I can’t find a “fairy” variety now, so it was probably Belleza.

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When I moved into my current house, gaura was also one of the first flowers with which I started the pieces of butterfly garden scattered across my backyard. Although some varieties are not self-seeding, the ones I planted are (again, probably Belleza). This spring, half a dozen volunteers popped up around my backyard. As many were growing on foot paths, I tried to transplant them to my front yard. Unfortunately, none survived. I’m sure this was at least partly my fault, though, because I attempted to plant them straight into the ground with fertilizer (rather than with potting mix, like what comes with store-bought plants).

I ended up buying several more mature gaura to plant around my front yard, and they’ve done well in the blazing sun and south Louisiana summer heat. Although they die back in the winter, gaura returns in the spring in my zone (9b). In my yard, it was a little slower to grow back than some of my other perennials, like Mexican Terragon.

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Lantana growing to the left and coreopsis behind. Hellooooo, butterflies.

I have at least a dozen gaura between my front yard and backyard, and I’m looking forward to more self-seeding in the coming years.

Highlights:

  • Wispy, pretty stems and little white or pink flowers that attracts bees and butterflies
  • Very hardy once established; can survive blazing sun and poor soil
  • Most varieties self-seed but the plant has shallow roots if they pop up in undesired places
  • Volunteers may not transplant well
  • Grows up to 2-3 feet tall but dies back in the winter

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