How to Grow and Care for Dianthus — Pinks

Sweet Willian, Dianthus barbatus
Sweet Willian, Dianthus barbatus

Dianthus–commonly called garden pinks–are bushy upright plants with lance-shaped leaves and domed heads of sweet-scented flowers that bloom pink, red, burgundy, white, or bicolored in summer. Garden pinks are a mainstay of cottage garden beds.

The term “pinks” is an archaic common name for the Dianthus species. There are many dianthus species. Three commonly grown in gardens are:

  • Dianthus barbatus is known as Sweet William. These are spring-blooming biennials that grow 12 to 24 inches (30-61cm) tall. Flowers form densely packed, sweetly scented flat clusters up to 5 inches (12.5cm) across.
  • Dianthus caryophyllus is known as carnation, border carnation, florist’s carnation, and pink. Carnations are best known as cut flowers. They are short-lived perennials. These grow to 2 feet (61cm) tall.
  • Dianthus chinensis is known as pink or China pink. There are a number of cultivars that grow 6 to 8 inches (15-20cm) tall. The petals are serrated.
China pinks, Dianthus chinensis

Get to know garden Dianthus — pinks

  • Plant type: Cool-season annual, biennial, or perennial depending on the species
  • Growing Zones and range: 2-11
  • Hardiness: Hardy to -30°F (-34°C); most do best in cool climates; there are species for all climates
  • Height and width: 4 to 24 inches (10-61cm) tall; 6 to 30 inches (15-76cm) wide
  • Foliage: Leaves and linear to lance-shaped, mostly pointed, and often blue-gray and gray-green.
  • Flowers: Flat, ruffled. toothed, fringed, or lacy single or double flowers 1/2 to 2 inches wide; single forms usually have 5 petals. Pinks are distinguished by the serrated edges of their flower petals.
  • Flower colors: Shades of red and pink; also white, yellow, and mahogany
  • Bloom time: Spring and summer; all year in Zones 10-11
  • Uses: Bedding plants, borders, cutting flowers
  • Common name: Pinks, Sweet William
  • Botanical name: Dianthus spp.
  • Family: Caryophyllaceae
  • Origin: South, central, and eastern Europe and Northern Asia and Japan
Wild carnation, Dianthus caryophyllus
Wild carnation, Dianthus caryophyllus

Where to plant Dianthus — pinks

  • Grow Dianthus in full sun to light shade in Zones 3-7. Grow pinks in light shade in Zones 7-9.
  • Plant Dianthus in average to humus-rich, well-drained, slightly alkaline soil.
  • Add aged compost to the planting bed ahead of planting.
  • Dianthus prefers a soil pH of 6 to 7.5.

Dianthus uses and companions

  • Use Dianthus barbatus mass-planted in formal gardens; scatter them about the cottage garden to allow them to self-sow. This is a long-lasting cut flower.
  • Dianthus deltoides is an excellent ground cover in rock gardens, along paths, or between pavers. Plant these in wall crevices or use them as garden edging.
  • Dianthus gratianopolitanus can be used in rock gardens nestled against rocks. Plant these in foreground in a formal border or use them to edge a path.
  • Dianthus plumarius can be used in rock and cottage gardens; use it as edging in an informal border.
  • Good garden companions for Dianthus include Campanula, Convolvulus mauritanicus, Iberis sempervirens, Iris, Lychnis coronaria, Phlox subulata, Stachys lanata.
Cottage pinks, Dianthus plumarius
Cottage pinks, Dianthus plumarius

When to plant Dianthus — pinks

  • Sow dianthus indoors 8 to 12 weeks before the last frost in spring. Set plants outdoors once the danger of frost is past, after hardening them off in the shade for a few days.
  • Sow perennial species in spring or summer in cool-summer regions; sow in fall or winter in Zones 9 to 11.
  • Sow biennials species in fall in Zones 9-11; sow in early to late summer in cool summer regions.
  • Plant annual China pinks in late fall or very early spring in Zones 8-11. Plant pinks in early spring in Zones 3-7. Plant perennial pinks in spring.
Maiden pink single flower, Dianthus deltoides
Maiden pink single flower, Dianthus deltoides

Planting and spacing Dianthus — pinks

  • Sow seeds 1 inch (2.5cm) apart and barely cover them with soil. Keep them at 75°F (24°C) until they germinate; germination takes about 7 days. Then reduce temperatures to 60° to 70°F (15.6-21°C).
  • Indoors start seed in a bright window or under a fluorescent light.
  • Sow seed outdoors in smoothly prepared soil; plant seeds 2 inches (5cm) or more apart.
  • Press seeds into the soil and cover them with 1/8 inch of soil. Do not let the seedbed dry out.
  • Space pinks 6 inches (15cm) to 2 feet 61cm) apart depending on the variety. Thinnings can be carefully transplanted to a new location.

How to water and feed Dianthus — pinks

  • Water deeply then allow the soil to just dry between watering when growing pinks.
  • Fertilize lightly at planting time and then every 4 to 6 weeks with an all-purpose fertilizer; annual dianthus requires more fertilizer than perennial species because of the long bloom time.
  • Mulch around plants in dry regions; mulch with aged compost or chopped leaves.
Maiden pinks, Dianthus deltoides
Maiden pinks, Dianthus deltoides

Dianthus — pinks care

  • Deadheading flowers will hasten reblooming.
  • Pinch back growth tips for bushier plants.
  • Tall varieties may need staking to keep from flopping.
  • Pinks commonly self-sow.
  • Protect perennial species with a light mulch after the ground freezes in winter.
  • For larger carnation flowers, remove all but one flower bud per plant.

Dianthus — pinks pests and diseases

  • Dianthus can be attacked by cutworms and slugs. Diseases are rarely a problem.

Dianthus — pinks propagation

  • Dianthus can be propagated by seed. Seeds germinate in 5 days at 70°F (21°C).
  • Chills seeds of Dianthus caryophyllus for 1 to 2 weeks before sowing.
  • Do not cover the seeds of D. caryophyllus; lightly cover the seeds of D. chinensis and D. barbatus.
  • Seedlings can be transplanted outdoors when temperatures reach 50° to 55°F (10°-13°C).
  • Propagate Dianthus by tip or stem cuttings; take a 3-inch (7.6cm) cutting and root in a mixture of half peat moss and half sand. Take cuttings from plants in full growth in summer. Do not let cutting dry out; roots should appear in about 4 weeks.
  • Dianthus can be propagated by layering; nick a long stem and cover the nick with moist soil; roots should form in 6 to 8 weeks.
  • Divide perennial species in early spring when new growth begins.
Double pink flowers of Dianthus
Double pink flowers of Dianthus

Pinks varieties to grow

  • Alpine pink (Dianthus alpinus) mound-forming 3 to 6 inches (7.6-15cm) tall; bears single flowers in late spring or early summer.
  • Allwood pinks (D. allwoodii) are similar to D. plumaris.
  • Deptford pink (D. armeria) rosette-forming 16 inches (40cm) tall bears clusters of small rosy pink flowers in summer.
  • Sweet William (D. barbatus) can be grown as an annual or perennial; used in cottage gardens and flower borders; grows 12 to 24 inches (30-61cm) tall; bears showy 3 to 4 inches wide, flat-topped clusters of flowers from late spring into early summer; many hybrids and cultivars widely available.
  • Wild carnations (D. caryophyllus) is a tender perennial that bears small clusters of small fragrant flowers; this species is the predecessor of the florist’s carnation; select a cultivar developed for gardens; long-stemmed cut flowers.
  • China pink (Dianthus chinensis) is a scented annual; use as bedding and edging; 6- to 12-inch (15-30cm) biennial or perennial with lance-shaped leaves; bears scentless flowers with fringed petals in 3-inch wide clusters from mid-summer to fall; ‘Parfait’ and Carpet Series are popular.
  • Maiden pink (D. deltoides) is a perennial that blooms up to 2 months; use a groundcover grows 6 to 12 inches (15-30cm) tall; rose-red flowers from early to midsummer; cold tolerant to -40°F (-40°C).
  • Cheddar pink (D. gratianopoitanus) is a fragrant perennial; use as a groundcover and in mixed borders; bears fragrant 1-inch wide flowers in late spring; heat tolerant; cold tolerant to -20°F (-29°C).
  • Dianthus hybrids. Thousands of hybrid cultivars are available as the result of countless crosses by hybridizes; heights range from 8 to 18 inches (20-45cm) and plants bloom in spring and summer; favorite cultivars include heat-tolerant ‘Bath’s Pink’, ‘Essex Witch’ with fringed rose-pink petals, ‘Gran’s Favorite’ with white flowers and spicy scent, ‘Little Jock’ with pink fringed petals, ‘Mrs. Sinkins’ with fragrant white flowers, and spicy-scented ‘Pikes Pink’. Other commonly available Dianthus hybrids include popular bedding varieties ‘Telstar’, ‘Telstar Picotee’, and ‘Brilliancy’.
  • Cottage pink, border pink (D. plumarius) is a fragrant perennial; use in beds, borders, cottage gardens, and containers; forms 12 to 24-inch (30-61cm) mounds; bears fragrant 1-inch-wide single, semidouble, or double flowers carried two to five per stems from spring to early summer.

Dianthus barbatus — Sweet William

Sweet William is the proverbial old-fashioned cottage garden flower. It is a biennial or short-lived perennial, sometimes treated as an annual because it blooms so quickly from seed. Like other members of the pink family, sweet William bears flowers with fringed petals and contrasting eyes. Unlike other pinks, however, the flowers are only lightly scented. Sweet Williams are borne in large, flat-topped clusters atop bushy plants with 3-inch-long, lance-shaped, glossy dark green leaves. The bloom season last from early summer to midsummer. Flower colors include shades of pink, red, purple, white, and multicolors. Sweet William self-sows, prolifically, but it may not come true to type.

  • Size: 1 to 1 ½ feet tall; 1 foot wide.
  • Light: Full sun in most areas; in hot summer regions some afternoon shade is helpful.
  • Soil and moisture: Rich, well-drained, alkaline soil; keep the soil evenly moist.
  • Planting and propagation: Plant container-grown plants in spring, spacing 1 foot apart. Divide plants every two or three years, or root cuttings in spring to maintain a selected cultivar.
  • Special care: Add lime to the soil where the soil is neutral or acidic. Remove flowering stems at ground level after flowers fade to reduce self-seeding and promote possible repeat bloom. Short-lived in the North; long-lived in the South.
  • Pest and diseases: Usually pest free.
  • Climate: Zones 3-9; longest-lived where summers are cool and winters mild.
  • Cultivars: ‘Newport Pink,’ rich coral-pink; ’Blood Red,’ darkest red 1 ¼ feet tall; ‘Homeland,’ deep red; ‘Scarlet Beauty,’ scarlet; ‘Pink Beauty,’ soft pink; ‘White Beauty,’ white; ‘Indian Carpet,’ mixed colors, 10-inches tall, often grown as annual.
  • Garden use: Mass-plant Sweet William in formal gardens. Scatter plants about the cottage garden and allow them to self-sow. Long-lasting cut flower.

Dianthus deltoides — maiden pink

Maiden pinks produce a blanket of lightly scented 1 ¼ inch flowers with sharp-tooth (‘’pinked’’) petals in such profusion that they totally obscure the foliage. Maiden pinks bloom on branched stems for two months in spring and early summer; they will rebloom if sheared. Cultivars are available as named selections or mixed seed strains in shades of pink, magenta-red, and white, all marked with crimson. Four- to 6-inch-long green leaves grow on creeping stems that form a thick evergreen mat. Leaves take on a rosy flush during cool weather.

  • Size: foliage grows to 6 inches tall; spreads to 2-foot-wide mats. Flower stalks grow 8 inches to 1 foot in height.
  • Light: Full sun to light or half shade.
  • Soil and moisture: Average to sandy, alkaline soil; moderate moisture.
  • Planting and propagation: Plant container-grown plants in spring, spacing 1 ½ feet apart. Divide in early spring if plants aren’t too woody; better to propagate by stem cuttings broken at a node after blooming ceases.
  • Special care: Self-sows and may be a bit weedy in tidy gardens. Shear back drastically in early spring before growth starts. Shear after flowering to prevent seeding, for neatness of mat from dying out, sift sand into the middle of the plant in spring and fall. Cover with evergreen bough in winter in cold-winter regions. Apply lime in spring if the soil is not alkaline.
  • Pest and diseases: Red spider mites may attack during hot, dry summers. Crown rot or root rot can be common if grown in soil that is too wet. Rabbits may eat plants.
  • Climate: Zones 3-9; performs well in the South.
  • Cultivars and similar species: ’Zing,’ bright scarlet; ‘Zing Rose,’ rose-red, 6 inches tall; ‘Albus,’ white, 6 inches tall; ‘Brillant,’ bright rose-pink, single, 4 inches tall.
  • Garden use: Excellent ground cover in the rock garden along paths, or between pavers in the patio. Plant in wall crevices or as garden edging. Combine with old garden roses.

Dianthus gratianopolitanus — Cheddar pink

This pink is named after the Cheddar Gorge in England where the plant is native. Cheddar pink forms a tussock of stiff, linear, gray-green, evergreen leaves. The single, 1-inch-wide, pink to rose flowers with fringed petals and bearded throats are richly scented with a sweet, spicy, clove, fragrance. Blossoms appear in profusion from spring to late summer if they are regularly deadheaded; they do not rebloom later in the summer even if sheared.

  • Size: Flower stems 6 to 10 inches tall above a mat of foliage that spreads to 1 foot.
  • Light: Full sun in moist areas, light shade in hottest regions.
  • Soil and moisture: Average to sandy, well-drained, alkaline soil; moderate moisture.
  • Planting and propagation: Plant container-grown plants in spring, spacing 1 ½ feet apart. Rejuvenate plantings that begin to lose vigor by taking stem cuttings in spring. Division is not recommended.
  • Special care: May rot in winter-wet soil; top-dress with pea gravel. Remove flowers as they fade, snapping off stems or shearing at nodes to promote reblooming. Cover with evergreen boughs in winter in the coldest areas. Apply lime in spring if the soil is not alkaline.
  • Pests and diseases: Red spider mites are sometimes troublesome during hot, dry summers, Crown rot or root rot is common if grown too wet. Rabbits may eat plants.
  • Climate: Zones 3-9; best with cool to mild summers.
  • Cultivars: ‘Bath’s Pink,’ soft pink with red eye; ‘Flore-plena,’ double, light pink; ‘Tiny Rubies,’ double, light crimson-pink, 4 inches tall; ‘Rose Queen,’ single, light-pink, 4 inches tall; ‘Little Boy Blue,’ frilled white flowers with rose specks, intense blue foliage.
  • Garden use: Perfect rock garden plant where it forms tussocks of flowers and foliage nestled against the side of flowers and foliage in the foreground of a well-drained formal border or edge path where growing conditions are right.

Dianthus plumarius — cottage pink

The petals of cottage pinks are deeply fringed or plumed—rather than ‘’pinked’’—- inspiring their botanical name–plumarius. A beloved cottage garden flower, this pink is extremely fragrant, possessing an intense, spicy, clove perfume. Flowers are borne in pairs or clusters on wiry stems and may be single, semidouble, or double, in pink, rose, magenta, or white, often with a contrasting eye. Cottage pinks bloom in late spring and early summer, and sporadically until frost if deadheaded. The extremely narrow, 1 – to 4-inch-long, gray-green leaves have conspicuous veins. Plants form a mat that grows into a wide, loose hummock.

  • Size: Foliage 6 inches tall; flower stalks to 2 feet tall. Spreads to form a 1-foot-wide mat.
  • Light: Full sun.
  • Soil and moisture: Humus-rich, well-drained, alkaline soil; moderate moisture.
  • Planting and propagation: Plant container-grown plants in spring spacing 10 inches apart. Divide every two or three years in late summer by cutting back plants, separating them into sections, and replanting deeply. May also take cuttings in summer.
  • Special care: Shear back drastically in early spring before growth starts and again after flowering to prevent seeding, for neatness, and to promote rebloom. Apply lime in spring if the soil is not alkaline.
  • Pest and diseases: Red spider mites can sometimes be troublesome during hot, dry summers. Crown rot or root rot is common if grown too wet; may rot in winter-et soil. Rabbits may eat plants.
  • Climate: Zones 3-9.
  • Cultivars and similar species: ‘Essex Witch,’ semidouble, range of pink, white, or salmon; ‘Spring Beauty,’ double, mixed pink, rose, salmon, white, D. x allwoodii (hybrid of D. plumarius and D. caryophyllus), looser and taller blue-gray mat, bears flowers in pairs, scent, flowers less deeply fringed, reblooms if sheared.
  • Garden use: Rock and cottage garden favorite; also lovely as ending in an informal border.

Pinks — Dianthus frequently asked questions

Q: Why are these flowers called pinks? I have seen white and red pinks.

A: China pinks can be red, white, pink, or lilac in color. They are called pinks because of their ruffled petal edges that look like they were cut with pinking shears. Pinking shears are scissors with saw-toothed instead of straight blades. They produce a zigzag pattern.

Q: Can you suggest the best China pinks varieties?

A: Pinks (Dianthus chinensis) varieties include China Doll an All-American winner with double flowers and mixed colors. Telstar is heat resistant. Magic Charms and Princess are compact plants that bloom all summer. Snowfire has white bloom with red centers and is heat resistant.

Q: Do pinks grow best in cool weather?

A: All pinks (dianthus) are frost-tolerant and many are nearly perennials able to withstand below-freezing temperatures. Many newer varieties are heat-resistant. Generally, pinks prefer cool to moderate temperatures and high humidity.

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