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I went to Oaxaca, Mexico in November to celebrate the Day of the Dead. The experience was unique in many ways and I enjoyed it very much. The parades, the music, the food and especially the flowers really delighted me. Most of the flowers used were marigolds. Until this trip, I was not aware how many different varieties there are of this new world flower species (Tagetes).

Another flower used in the Day of the Dead festivities was cockscomb (Celosia cristata). Many other blooming flowers were used in the decorations, adding to the feeling of rebirth.

My fellow travelers and I helped to build altars and decorate graves, which was a wonderful experience. We visited pottery makers who practice traditional methods and went to ancient ruins in the area. There were several festive parades, and everyone took part even if they were not dressed for the occasion.

Day of the Dead celebrants believe that marigolds, with their bright golden colors, guide the spirits to the altars and places where relatives await. Varieties have been bred to be bigger and grander for this journey. After dark in the graveyard, candles were lit around each grave. The candlelight with the golden flowers was beautiful.

We used several varieties of marigolds when decorating the altar and arch. The plants still had roots attached as they had been pulled from the ground rather than cut to keep them fresh longer. We used both whole flowers and petals. For the arch, the marigolds were tied in place, and for the rest of the decoration, the flowers were laid on the alter

Fruits, vegetables, sugar cane and decorated breads were added to the altars. Beautiful candles were also part of the decorations. Small burners were lit to lead the way.

As we moved around the countryside, we saw fields of wild marigolds everywhere. We also saw truckloads of flowers in route to the city for use in the celebrations.

While marigolds originate in the New World, explorers took them back to Europe so now there are French marigolds and African marigolds developed from the originals. Marigolds have also been used in folk medicine from ancient times. They have been used in tea and in skin treatments. I even noticed that they were fried and added to salads. Marigolds are also said to repel mosquitoes.

The French marigold varieties are relatively short and usually bloom in about eight weeks. African marigolds are taller and take longer to bloom. Plant a few of each for variety in flower color and size.

Perusing a garden catalog, I was amazed by the all the marigolds’ colors. They vary from creamy white to very deep orange, with many combinations in between.

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I have been reading a great deal about the marigold family and don’t know how much of it all is folklore and how much is fact. Some garden catalogs say that marigolds combat nematodes, and others say they repel most harmful insects. I plan to include them in my vegetable garden and flower beds to see how successful these plants are.

The seeds usually germinate within a week. You can sow them as soon as the ground warms in spring or start them indoors and pot up the seedlings. Move them to larger containers as they grow to give the roots plenty of room and insure that will be big when you are ready to plant them in the garden.

At planting time, dig a hole, add a tablespoon or so of worm compost and place the marigold into the hole. Press the soil into place and water well. Keep the soil moist until the plants are established. With care, you will have flowers from summer to fall. Remove spent flowers to encourage new ones to grow.

Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will conduct a workshop on “How to Plan and Plant a Home Vineyard” on Saturday, Jan. 12, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., in Yountville. Join the Integrated Grape Team members to learn techniques for planning and planting a home vineyard. The workshop will be held at a new home vineyard planted last year.

Learn the necessary planning steps, become familiar with the checklist of activities, methods of determining the proper rootstock, selection of wine grape varietals for specific locations and estimated yield calculations. Review our calendar timeline for planning, site preparation, initial planting and timing of the first harvest for a new home vineyard. Online registration (credit card only); mail-in/walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).

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UC Master Gardeners of Napa County ( answer gardening questions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to noon, at the UC Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Ave., Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143.