This is the time of year when garden centers stock up on marigolds and chrysanthemums for a punch of garden color timed for football guests. Auburn fans have many choices of orange marigolds. Alabama fans may choose crimson or white chrysanthemums for front door planters. Most gardeners shop for flowers because of color, but these two plants differ from each other.
Marigolds are annuals that love the mild fall weather, which means they look great until the first killing frost. Most marigolds grow about a foot tall and 6-to-10 inches wide, so they make good plants for containers, window boxes and the front of flowerbeds or as companions to vegetables in the kitchen garden. The most common marigolds are French (Tagetes patula) or African (Tagetes erecta) types, which differ slightly in bloom and size.
Compared to African marigolds, French varieties generally have more blooms (but smaller) than the African marigolds on plants that tend to branch and fill out. Names of some currently popular French types include Bonanza, Durango, Hero and Janie.
African marigolds such as Taishan, Antigua and Lady grow more upright with less branching and are topped with larger but fewer flowers. African marigolds also work well in containers, window boxes and flowerbeds but don’t generally mingle to fill the space between adjacent plants as well as French types. Some of the larger African marigolds may need staking in wind and rain. Be sure to read the tags on marigolds because some dwarf African types will be as short as the French types. Triploid hybrids of the African and French types (Zenith, Sunburst) may exhibit characteristics of each.
Signet marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia) are guaranteed hard to find but prized for many smaller, single blooms. The plants have nice lacy foliage that smells lemony. Gem is the best-known variety; it looks like a wildflower with lanky, flowing stems. These are also good for containers, window boxes and as a garden edging. (Signets sprout easily from seed, but wait until spring. It’s too late for seeds now.)
Bees and butterflies love marigolds; they are sure to attract sulphurs, skippers, swallowtails and other butterflies whose numbers peak in the fall. With so much mystery surrounding the disappearance of honeybees, marigolds could be a small positive contribution to their survival.
Garden chrysanthemums (not florist types) are perennial plants that die back in the winter but will come back and bloom the next summer or fall. If purchased now, they will be in bloom or bud in a nursery pot. The flowers typically last at least a month, depending on the weather (cool, dry weather makes them last longer than hot or rainy). The blooms generally won’t last as long as marigolds, but the plants will live for years with proper care (a sunny spot and well drained soil). Mums are generally taller and more upright than marigolds. They are great for containers and for a spot of color in a flower bed. Chrysanthemums brought from a florist are often bred for greenhouse growing and may not be perennial.
Chrysanthemum flowers come in white and many shades of yellow, gold, mahogany, orange, red, pink, lavender and green. Marigolds are always shades of yellow, gold, orange and mahogany. A Google image search for any of these plants can help gardeners prepare for a visit to the garden center this fall.