Lowenfels: As the snow goes, consider marigolds

AnchorageApril 24, 2013 

Marigolds in the Anchorage municipal greenhouse

MARC LESTER — Anchorage Daily News archive

There. It is gone. Or it soon will be if it hasn't already. And as the snow goes, so goes the winter, I say. Look at those fattening birch buds, not to mention all the rest of the buds, swelling. Best of all, the geese are back and so, phenologically speaking, is spring. Finally.

I know quite a few of you were caught off guard by the fast snow melt and sudden spring weather. Let this be a reminder that the northern gardener has to garden, in part, by the calendar and not by judging what is going on outdoors.

There isn't anything you can do to catch up on those plants you should have started from seed save buy the plants you might have (there are worse problems). Heed this warning, however, even if you didn't listen to past ones: The early bird gets their choice of stuff when it comes to gardening here. Put off buying what you will need in four weeks (which is when we can be outside with surety of no evening frost), and your choices will definitely be limited, at best.

If you are feeling like you should plant lots of seeds to make up for lost time, why not consider marigolds? These were wildly popular in the 1970s when the Burpee Seed catalog was a must have. Mr. Burpee Sr. offered a huge monetary prize for the development of a pure white marigold, he loved these flowers so much. Given their attractiveness to slugs, however, they fell out of favor in the Alaska garden.

Ah, but today we not only seem to have a bit longer growing season for those that flower later, but more effective organic methods for controlling slug populations, so marigolds really should make a return. Why not this year in your yard? There are so many different kinds to grow.

If you are interested, they should be started now and just about every seed rack has a selection of marigolds. Marigolds have been bred to produce an amazing array of flower shapes, sizes and colors, including the prize-winning, white-flowering variety that Mr. Burpee so madly pursued.

In fact, it is important to ascertain from the package the ultimate size of the plants the seeds will produce. Some are small, six-inch border plants. Others can be wide bushes three or more feet tall. In any case, your plants will flower with quite a display if the slugs don't get them, so it is important to plant the right size variety and flower in the proper location.

Just about nothing plants and starts easier than a marigold seed. They are small enough so that planting them seems special, but in actuality they are big seeds, and there doesn't seem to be an up- or downside to orienting them in the soil. This makes them perfect for kids.

Since they are large seeds, put them in individual containers. The roots should fill the extra space quickly. I like to use paper cups. They are cheap and easy to find. If I worked in a coffee-drinking office, I would collect used cups. Both are easy to write on so you don't need labels. Holes in the bottom for drainage, please.

The taller varieties of marigolds should be transplanted into larger containers, so roots don't become crowded before ultimately planting outdoors in the ground or in planters. Some folks just transplant into containers that they maintain indoors until they can be hardened off. Marigolds should also be grown at cool temperatures once they germinate. This will produce short, sturdy stock.

As noted, slugs love marigolds. It is never too early to look for them and their silvery, snot-like trails. Slug traps indoors make sense if you are working in a greenhouse. Just make sure they are organic and safe and placed a few feet away from the plants, not in amongst them. You can buy marigold starts from local nurseries. Check them too, to make sure none are carrying slugs (sometimes it is unavoidable when you sell tens of thousands of plants).

Finally, of all the plants that sunburn, marigolds are right at the top of the list -- redheads, so to speak. When it comes time to transplant homegrown or nursery purchased plants, it is extremely important that they be hardened off, that is acclimated to the sun and wind, first.


Join Jeff Lowenfels at "The Garden Party," 10 a.m.-noon on Saturdays on KBYR AM 700.



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