Why not plant some Calendula?

Calendula glows like the sun.

Mrs. Homegrown here, leaving the composting controversy behind…

One of my favorite plants in the garden is Calendula officinalis, aka pot marigold. It should not be mistaken for common marigold, or Mexican marigold, both of which are in the genus Tagetes. Tagetes marigolds are popularly used in companion planting (to ward off bugs in the garden), and for combating nemadtodes in the soil. Calendula is for helping people.

I grow Calendula in order to make lotions, balms and salves. I’m a firm believer in its healing power, my belief based on the happy response by family and friends who use my salves. Calendula is anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. It soothes, heals and helps regenerate skin. You’ll find Calendula extract as an ingredient in expensive beauty products, but you can make your own Calendula salve for pennies. I’m going to come back to how to do that in a later post, but first, I want to talk about planting Calendula so you can get some going in your own yard (or on your balcony) this spring.


Planting Calendula:

Calendula is beautiful and easy to grow, even for beginners. It’s not at all picky and will adapt to various soils and light conditions like a trooper, though–like most things–it does best if planted in rich, loose soil and given full sun. Even if you’ve had bad luck with flowers in the past, try Calendula. I’d be surprised if it let you down.

It’s technically a short lived perennial, so in very mild climates it might be a permanent garden flower, However, it doesn’t live through freezes or extreme heat. Here is southern California it’s a self-seeding annual. It seeds like crazy, so if you don’t want volunteers all over your yard, trim off the spent blooms–”deadhead” them–before they go to seed. (Calendula seed is trippy: big, gnarly crescent shaped pods, each one a little different–very unlike most seed, which is quite conformist.)

It does very well when grown from seed planted directly in the ground. In years past I’ve let Calendula range all over the yard as casual volunteers, all descended from some long forgotten planting, so obviously it’s not particular about planting conditions.

However, when it came time Phan of Pharmacy ™,  I wanted to start fresh, so I bought seeds. And I wanted to start the seeds while I was preparing the ground, so I started the seeds in flats and transplanted the seedlings when they were about three or four inches high. This worked very well. Calendula isn’t particularly pest-prone, but some things will munch on it, particularly when it’s small. Transplanting the seedlings when they were larger may have given them the oomph to withstand attacks. They also didn’t mind the shock of transplanting–I had no losses.

The Rundown on Calendula:

  • When to plant: Almost any time after frost: early spring into early summer. It doesn’t do well in scorching heat, so the earlier the better.
  • Where to plant: As above, it’s not too picky about soil. You want part to full sun. 
  • How deep to plant: About a 1/4″.
  • How far apart:  If planting in flats, seeds can be close, maybe 3 or 4 inches. If you’re planting straight into the ground you need to consider the final size of the plant, and how close you want them together. I like mine close, so in the Phan they are about 8″ apart. I think 8″ to 1 foot is a good range.
  • How big is it? Depends. A foot or so high, maybe more if it’s older or very happy, and probably about a foot across. 
  • Water: Calendula needs regular water. The one thing you have to do is remember to water it.
  • Fertilizer: You don’t really need it, but if you’ve got some nice compost you can spread some around the plants. 
  • Harvest: To save flowers for medicine, pick them when they’re open and at their peak. Don’t worry about picking too much. Picking just forces them to send out more flowers. Not picking is what leads to plants going to seed and closing up shop. Take the heads inside and dry them face down out of direct light. When dry enough to be crunchy, strip the petals and transfer to jar.
  • Pots: Calendula takes well to containerized life. Try it in pots or window boxes. It would do well in self-irrigating container, too.
  • Seeds: Look around for interesting flowers. As long as the seed pack reads “Calendula officinalis” you’ve got the right stuff. This year I planted the “Pacific Beauty Blend” from Botanical Interests and like them quite a lot. They have a wide range of colors, from almost cream to bright yellow to this cool peach color to the classic vibrant orange. Some of them are beautifully double flowered, others have more of the traditional daisy thing going on.
The seeds and some heads brought in from the garden for drying.

One last note: Calendula is edible. It’s not flavorful, but it’s fun to add the petals to salads. Dried calendula leaves look a little like saffron and can also be used in cooking for color. Calendula also can be brought indoors as a cut flower.

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31 Comments

  1. Thank you for this! I plan on growing things specifically for our home’s salves, powders and soaps this year and this is a definite plant to include! I’ll be eager to absorb any wisdom you can relay!

  2. Awesome post. Can’t wait to get them in the garden. I’m ready to try my hand at salves and lotions but am so green when it comes to that stuff. Thanks for the knowledge. Keep it coming!

  3. @DigitalBishop: I wonder about that myself. Don’t know if there’s a right or wrong in it. I dry them on the head, then pluck them off later. They’d probably dry faster if plucked first, but I know that if I had to face denuding every head I brought in from the garden right away, I’d be less likely to bring the heads in. So I bring em in, pile them up and pluck them in one fiesta when they’re all dry.

  4. Calendula– my hero! I love it, too, and use it in several things I make. I don’t think it is the prettiest flower I’ve ever seen. But it makes up for it in all its soothing ways.

    Regarding drying and using: I dry ‘em intact and store them that way as well. It’s just easier to transfer wholeheads than piles of petals. I use the whole head in my infusions and oils.Some of the dried flowers will fall apart on their own. If a flower base seems particularly huge or nasty I use only its petals. Otherwise, the whole thing goes in.

  5. Thank you! Calendula has been on my radar for about a week now and I am so happy to hear more good things about it. Now just have to find the seeds. Looking forward to your salve recipe later.

  6. Calendula is a favorite of ours, both in the garden for its pretty color and in my skin salves. Have grown it for years. Back east the plants would get quite tall. Here in the high desert they stay squat regardless of soil condition, water, etc. To maximize my harvest, have decided to pull my culinary herbs and transfer them to pots, so I have more room for the calendula.

  7. It is also a great pot herb in the winter for soups. I just use the whole flower head rather than strip the petals. It is a great tincture for the lymphatic system and is bacteriostatic, meaning that it doesn’t “kill” bacteria, but contains it.

  8. I grew a load of calendula last year and I’m still getting blossoms from my plants! I use it dry or fresh in my homemade goats milk soap and healing salves. love the color that it brings to my backyard. i’m a huge fan of orange.

  9. Ooh, marigolds are awesome. I tried growing some Tagetes Lucida in the garden last year after reading that it was used by the Aztecs (thanks Wikipedia!) But it didn’t do that great, I think it was shaded too much by the tomatoes.

  10. Hello! I’ve been interested in growing Calendula ever since making the hair rinse in Making It. I’m in SoCal and was told to plant Calendula in the fall here as the mild mediterranean winter here is like spring elsewhere in the country and Calendula was described as a “cool weather” plant. My question is, is that true? And if anyone has a moment, what else from this list would you grow in the cool/rainy season in SoCal versus starting in March for the warm/dry season? For example, I’ve heard grow Basil in the warm/dry season. Anyway, here’s the list:
    Basil
    Bee Balm
    Calendula
    Chamomile
    Comfrey
    Lavender
    Lemon Verbena
    Mint
    Oregano
    Rosemary
    Sage
    Soapwort
    Thyme
    Yarrow
    Hops

    Thank you so much.

  11. @Joss: In S. Cal Calendula is indeed a winter plant. It will decline when the weather gets hot, self-seed and come back w. the rains.

    I’d start *almost* all of the plants on that list in the cool season–as early as Oct/Nov if from seed. Perennials like lav. and rosemary that you might buy in pots can be planted any time during the cool season. These plants will have the advantage of getting established during the gentle time of year. You can probably start most of them in the warm season too, if you have to– it will just be a lot more work, more water and higher chance of failure.

    The exceptions are basil and hops. Basil loves warmth, and won’t really take off til the nights warm up a bit. Hops are sold as rhizomes and usually only available in spring.

  12. I pluck heads off my calendula almost daily and noticed a few days ago that every plant was coated in a sticky, fuzzy, silver substance. For the last two mornings I’ve spritzed and poured diluted milk on them because it kind of sounded like powdery mildew (I’ve never seen powdery mildew -just going off written descriptions). One source said powdery mildew is invited by poor air circulation and from humidity or the plants getting wet. They are dense little plants (they have ample space between them, but each one is its own fat cluster) and I had let my toddler ‘water’ them shortly before it showed up. Strangely (to me, at least), the calendula is spread out throughout the herb garden -every calendula is affected and not a single other herb in between all the calendula shows any sign of it. Has this happened to you? It’s just on the leaves, so I’ve still been harvesting the flowers to dry, but maybe those flowers will spoil the collection of dried petals I already have?

  13. @Joss: Sorry about the Calendula. We’ve never had any problems with ours. It does sound like powdery mildew–in that case it would make sense that it is not attacking your other herbs, since most herbs aren’t vulnerable to it.

    I don’t know if we can be of much help. We have had mildew on some types of cucumbers and squashes, and deal with the problem by growing a mildew resistant type the following year. Once the mildew is pretty well established it is impossible to eradicate–the only hope is in getting it early.

    You might find some useful information at our favorite UCDavis pest management page:

    http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7493.html

    I don’t know if the mildew would effect your dried flowers. I tend to think not, since it is a fungus it will die when dried. But you could keep suspect flowers in different container.

    Also, I don’t know where you live, but sometimes cultivation problems like this can be managed by changing your planting times just a bit. For instance, here we have a weather condition called “June gloom” and mildews can form during this damp overcast weather, so we have learned to plant our squashes &etc. in June, so by the time they’re leafing out, the heat and sun are back in force, lessening the chances of mildew. It may be too cool and damp to be growing Calendula now–you might want to pull them and try again a little later.

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    • The flowers are the parts traditionally used– and they are what I use. (Sometimes I use whole dried heads instead of plucked petals, so there’s a little green stuff in that case.) There are two good reasons for doing so — the first is that the petals yield beautiful orange oil in infusions–which you’d use to make salves, lotions and balms–leaves would dilute that color. The second is that you can continually harvest the flowers from the same plant if you leave the foliage intact. I’ve heard that the leaves have similar properties, but can’t back that up. I don’t know what the properties of the roots are, but it’s often the case that the roots act differently than the above ground parts of the plants, so I wouldn’t use them unless I found out exactly what their properties are.

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  18. Hello! I grow Calendula for the hair rinse described in Making It. It grows really well, but the stems of our flowers and the undersides of the blossoms are always completely coated in some kind of little bug. Is there anything I can do about that? It makes the plants a little unappealing to handle and me a little reluctant to steep them in a tea and pour it over my head. A few bugs would be no big deal, but it’s like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with them. Thank you :)

  19. Mrs. Homegrown: I really enjoyed your site and all the “How to Instruction” thank you so much for the great invaluable information. I just bought my first packet of Pacific Pot Marigold Seed. I am so looking forward to planting here in N.C. I think it will do well, if the heat doesn’t bother too much. I love the afan idea. I may try it as I need to get some seeds down I decided I needed!! So happy to see other people like me, have a Wonderful growing season! ~*~€ ~*

  20. The first thing I try for anything that bothers any plant (100+ in my garden and landscape)I grow (also for roses), I just sprinkle some food grade Diatomaceous Earth (DE) on it! It is a pleasant white powder; DE kills off slugs and aphids for sure, and if it doesn’t cure the problem, it won’t hurt the plant. Two sources are by “Perma-Guard” and “Red Lake Earth”. Google for more info and websites. I’ve been adding a daily sprinkle of DE to my dogs’ and cat’s food for 10+ years and rub some on them in the summer sorta like an occasional dry shampoo (and they’re all super healthy)! It helps them stay free of worms and other parasites (such as fleas and ticks). It’s not harmful to get on your skin but I wash my hands afterwards. A 10 lb bag will last a long time and it costs about $10. BTW, I cut and added some of the young leaves to my garden mesclun mixture when giving it a “harvest haircut” altho not sure what it was, so I KNOW that the leaves are edible! DE is a SUPER and harmless replacement for SEVIN dust in case you’re trying to limit chemicals in your garden/landscape. Have fun with this great helper straight from nature!

    • Calendula is tough–I’m sure you could get it to grow. Check with local sources to see when best to plant it.

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