How to Grow Garden Pinks for Old-Fashioned Charm

Dianthus plumarius

Garden pinks are an old-fashioned favorite beloved for the sweetly spicy fragrance and charming, frilled flowers in shades of pink, red, and white.

A mass planting of frilly garden pinks (Dianthus plumarius) in bloom.

With all the appeal of their larger cousin, the carnation, pinks are easily grown, have a full flowering season, and are among the best scented perennials in the garden.

And they’re an absolute must-have if you enjoy bouquets of freshly cut flowers!

Here are all the details you’ll need to grow pretty garden pinks yourself.

Cultivation and History

Dianthus is a large genus in the family Caryophyllaceae, with over 300 species endemic to Asia, Europe, and Japan plus a North American alpine species. The genus name is derived from the Greek words dios (god) and anthos (flower), meaning “divine flower” or “flower of the gods.”

Garden pinks or Dianthus plumarius is a species within the Dianthus genus and includes many cultivars that are grown in gardens and are suitable for landscape applications.

Close up of traditional garden pinks in bloom. Macro shot.

D. plumarius are also called common, cottage, Scotch, or wild pinks, and are native to central Europe, being introduced to the UK around the year 1100.

A short-lived perennial evergreen, it has a mat-forming growth habit reaching 1- 2 feet tall and is hardy in Zones 4-9. Simple lancet leaves grow opposite one another on upright, branching stems in a subdued shade of glaucous gray green.

Pinkish Red Dianthus plumarius flowers in bloom in a landscaped yard.

The pretty flowers grow in scapes of 3 to 5 buds and can be single, semi-double, or double petaled ranging in size from 1 to 2.5 inches – with the doubles typically offering the largest blooms.

They come in tones of maroon, mauve, purple, pink, red, and white and have a seemingly infinite variety of color patterns, often with a striking eye of contrasting color.

Purple Dianthus plumarius garden pink flowers in bloom.

Blooming from May to July, plumarius will re-bloom lightly after the first flush.

Grown for their pretty, fringed flowers with a spicy fragrance of cloves, they’ve been cultivated for centuries.

Numerous references to their popularity are found in European art works, tapestries, and the illuminated illustrations of Medieval texts and prayer books.

And petals of D. plumarius were once added to wines and cordials to lend a spicy flavor – one of the oldest known cultivars is actually called ‘Sops in Wine’!

Naming of the species is a little unclear. Some believe it comes from the German name for plants that bloomed at Pentecost called pfingsten. Others say it comes from the jagged petal edges, which look as though cut by pinking shears.

White with pink centered garden pink Dianthus plumarius flowers in bloom. Close up with diffused background.

Regardless of the name origin, the color is named for the flower, and not the other way around. Until the eighteenth century, flowers in this shade were referred to as blush, carnation, flesh-colored, light or pale red, or rose, but never as “pink”.

Propagation

Garden pinks can be propagated by seed or by cuttings.

Garden pinks or Dianthus plumarius seedlings in a plastic grown tray. Close up.

To grow from seed, start seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost in your region.

  1. Use a light starter soil in trays and keep it moist throughout the germination and indoor growth periods.
  2. Scatter seeds lightly and cover with 1/4 inch of soil.
  3. Place in a warm location – the ideal temperature for germination is 60 to 70 degrees F.
  4. Seeds germinate and sprout in 8 to 10 days.
  5. After a few weeks, plants will form a good root system and can be potted up or transplanted outdoors.

Many cultivars are sterile and must be propagated by cuttings to ensure the same characteristics of the parent plant.

This can be done with non-flowering cuttings taken in the summer.

  1. Cut shoots 2 to 3 inches long, just below a leaf node.
  2. Remove any lower leaves close to the stem.
  3. Dip the bottom 1 inch in a rooting compound.
  4. Insert cuttings into 4 or 6-inch pots filled with moist rooting soil – 50 percent compost or peat and 50 percent sharp, horticultural sand.
  5. If the air is dry, cover with a cloche or propagator lid but ensure the lid is propped up for proper air circulation – dianthus is averse to being too closely covered.
  6. Place pots in bright, indirect sunlight and keep the soil moist.
  7. Transplant in early fall when new roots are established for blooms the following year.

How to Grow

Garden pinks grow best in a light, fluffy soil with a sandy, loamy texture and a neutral, or slightly limey, pH – but they don’t like to be in acidic soil.

Add 4 to 6 inches of well-rotted manure or compost to enrich the soil before planting, and ensure the site is well-draining. Standing water in winter can be a problem and they need excellent drainage to prevent dieback. Add sharp sand to the planting site to improve drainage if needed.

They require dry to medium moisture levels and full sun for a minimum of six hours per day – although they’ll appreciate some afternoon shade in very hot summer weather. And they can tolerate humidity, but ensure plants have proper air circulation to prevent fungal infections.

Although perennial, they are short lived and will form bare patches in the center where the plant dies off. Plan on renewing them every 3 to 4 years.

Because they’re so easy to propagate, starting a few cuttings each year is a good way to ensure your plants always survive the winter.

D. plumarius also benefits from deadheading spent flowers which will encourage a second, lighter flush of blooms.

In the garden, plants can be spaced 9 to 12 inches apart. In containers they can be closer, about 6 to 9 inches apart.

Growing Tips

  • Hardy in Zones 3-9, D. plumarius will appreciate a thick mulch in winter to protect it from cold and harsh winds.
  • In colder regions, they can easily be grown from seed as an annual if started early indoors.
  • Pinks have a sweet fragrance of cloves and make a wonderful, long-lasting cut flower – be sure to plant plenty to cut for indoor arrangements.
  • Old-fashioned varieties will self-seed readily in optimum conditions – leave some seedheads in place if so desired.
  • Replace every 3 to 4 years to keep plants looking vibrant.
  • Plants are deer resistant.

Pruning and Maintenance

Garden pinks are easy to care for and will respond well to just a little TLC.

Prompt deadheading of spent flowers will extend the bloom period and encourage new buds. For large plantings, shear the plants after blooming. This prevents self-seeding, trims the stems and foliage, and encourages a second, lighter flush of flowers.

In regions with cold winters, provide a 4 to 6-inch layer of dry mulch such as hay, shredded leaves, or straw.

In spring, once new foliage begins to emerge but before the flower buds, remove any mulch or winter debris.

Remove any dead spots that developed over winter, then top and side dress plants with organic material such as aged compost or manure. Fluff the material before top dressing and rake material gently down to the roots.

Cultivars to Select

A dwarf plumarius, ‘Sweetness’ blooms in a pretty mix of single flowers in shades of pink, rose, and white with and without contrasting eyes. This Fleuroselect award winner is beloved for their masses of first-year flowers that bloom from July to September with early indoor sowing.

Dianthus plumarius ‘Sweetness’ Seeds

Mats of foliage grow 4 to 6 inches high with flowers stems only 6 inches tall. Easy to grow from seed, try these fragrant lovelies are well-suited to beds, borders, containers, and rockeries.

A butterfly favorite, they’re deer and rabbit resistant and drought tolerant – a good choice for xeriscapes. Pick up seed seeds of ‘Sweetness’ from Hazzard Seeds at Amazon.com.

‘White Lace’ is a long-lived, highly fragrant plumarius with striking, pure white, single-petal blooms and cool, glaucous foliage. It mounds to a height of 6 inches with 10 to 12-inch flower stems and a 12-inch spread.

Dianthus plumarius ‘White Lace’ Seeds

Blooming heavily in April to July, it reblooms lightly until frost if sheared after the first flowering. Deer and rabbit resistant and drought tolerant, ‘White Lace’ is attractive to butterflies and blooms the first year.

Pick up ‘White Lace’ seeds from Hazzard’s Seeds on Amazon.

‘Georgia Peach Pie’ is a plumarius hybrid that features large, pale-peach flowers with a saucy, apricot-coral eye and a delicious perfume. It blooms from May to July, with sporadic flowers until September after deadheading the first set of flowers.

Dianthus, Georgia Peach Pie close up.

‘Georgia Peach Pie’ Live Plants

Foliage forms a compact, 6 to 8-inch cushion with a spread of 10 to 12 inches and tall flower stems 10 to 12 inches high – perfect for the cutting garden! And beds, borders, or rock gardens.

Bred for outstanding cold and drought tolerance, it’s also deer resistant. But bees and butterflies love the large, fragrant flowers. Order handsome ‘Georgia Peach Pie’ plants online from Burpee.

‘Sonata’ mixed are double-petaled plumarius with a sweet scent of cloves in shades of pink, red, rose, and white, some with distinctive marked eyes. This mat-forming perennial has gray green foliage growing 4 to 6 inches tall with 12-flower stalks and a 12-inch spread.

Dianthus ‘Sonata’ Mix Flower Seeds

They flower from May to July with lighter blooms until September if cut back or sheared after the first flush of flowers. Easy to establish from seed, ‘Sonata’ makes an excellent flowering ground cover.

Attracts bees and butterflies but repels deer and rabbits. ‘Sonata’ mixed seeds can be purchased from Astor Farm on Amazon.

Close Relations

There are other species of dianthus often referred to as garden pinks, due to their many similarities.

The most common of these are:

  • Cheddar Pinks, D. gratianopolitanus
  • China Pinks, D. chinensis 
  • Sweet William, D. barbatus

Cheddar Pinks, D. gratianopolitanus

D. gratianopolitanus, or Cheddar pinks, are native to western and central Europe, and have a tufted, mounding form with small, fringed flowers in mauve, pink, and rose with a rich, spicy perfume.

Cheddar Pinks, Dianthus gratianopolitanus growing in a cluster and in bloom. Close up.
Dianthus gratianopolitanus.

They flower abundantly in spring and early summer with a second, lighter, bloom after the first flush if spent flowers are deadheaded.

Growing 5 to 6 inches tall with a spread of 10 to 12 inches, Cheddars are hardy in Zones 4-8.

China Pinks, D. chinensis 

D. chinensis are commonly called China or rainbow pinks, and are native to east Asia including China, Korea, Mongolia, and southeast Russia. Extensively hybridized, they’re found in most garden shops.

Dianthus Chinensis Flowers with pink centers and white outer frignes.
Dianthus Chinensis.

Plants and can grow as tall as 30 inches, although many cultivars are bred for compact or mid-sized growth with a mature height of 6 to 12 and 12 to 18 inches.

They feature fragrant flower clusters in shades of mauve, pink, red, and white with numerous bicolors and pattern variety. Blooming in summer, many will repeat with a vigorous pruning after the first flush of flowers.

They prefer cool summers and dislike in heat and humidity. Grown as a biennial or short-lived perennial, they’re hardy in Zones 6-9.

Sweet William, D. barbatus

Commonly called sweet William, D. barbatus is another popular garden species. They can grow as tall as 36 inches, but typical growth is 12 to 24 inches with many cultivars bred as dwarf plants 6 to 8 inches tall.

Purple, pink, and white flowers of Dianthus barbatus with differeing shapes and color combinations.
A collection of cultivars of Dianthus barbatus or sweet Williams.

They feature full, terminal clusters of small single, semi, or double flowers 3 to 5 inches wide in vivid, patterned shades of bubblegum, mauve, red, and white plus bicolors and often with a contrasting eye. Old fashioned varieties are fragrant, but many of the newer cultivars are scent-free.

Winter hardy in Zones 3-9, sweet Williams are grown as a biennial or short-lived perennial that re-seeds readily, remaining vibrant in the garden for years. When grown from seed, they’ll bloom the first year if started early indoors.

Grow sweet William’s as for d. plumarius, providing some light afternoon shade in areas with hot summers.

Managing Pests and Problems

In areas with warm, humid summers or prolonged wet spells, leaf spot bacteria, Alternaria solani and Septoria lycopersici, can cause blight – brown, gray, tan, or yellow spots that first appear on foliage.

Remove infected foliage and ensure plants are spaced for adequate air circulation and use a multipurpose antifungal spray to treat plants. Bonide Fung-Onil Fungicide controls numerous common diseases and is available on Amazon.

Spider mites and aphids like to suck sap from dianthus and can be controlled with a good blast from the garden hose. Make sure to spray the underside of leaves to get all of them. Or, an insecticidal soap will dispatch most insects, as will a spray of neem oil. Adding ladybugs to the garden is another good way of controlling the smaller pest insects.

Crown rot can also be a problem that shows up as wilt and dieback, and prevention is the best solution. Ensure your plants have excellent drainage, particularly in winter when standing water can cause damage.

Thankfully, slugs, snails, and deer all find dianthus distasteful!

Quick Reference Growing Chart

Plant Type: Evergreen herbaceous flowering perennial Flower / Foliage Color: Mauve, pink, red, white flowers with glaucous gray-green foliage and stems
Native To: Central Europe Maintenance: Minimal, deadhead spent flowers if desired
Hardiness (USDA Zone): 3-9 Soil Type: Sandy, loamy soil enriched with organic material
Bloom Time: May-July, may rebloom after deadheading Soil pH: Neutral to slightly alkaline, 7-7.5
Exposure: Full sun, provide light afternoon shade in hot regions Soil Drainage: Well-drained
Time to Maturity: 60-90 days from seed Companion Planting: Roses, coreopsis. hollyhocks, hyssop, virburnum, spirea
Spacing: 6-18 inches, depending on cultivar Uses: Beds, borders, containers, cutting, edging, ground covers, rockeries, window boxes
Planting Depth: Seeds: 1/4 inch Seedlings: 4-6 inches Family: Caryophyllaceae
Height: 6-24 inches Subfamily: Gnaphalieae
Spread: 6-18 inches Genus: Dianthus
Water Needs: Moderate Species: D. plumarius
Tolerance: Dry, gravelly soil; drought, once established
Attracts: Bees and butterflies
Pests & Diseases: Aphids, spider mites, crown rot, leaf spot

Best Uses in the Garden

Compact or dwarf plants with a low-growing habit are best suited to the front of beds or borders, containers, edging, rockeries, and windowboxes. And they make a cheery, mat-forming ground cover in sunny spots.

Mid-sized and tall plants are well-suited to the middle of beds and borders, alongside paths, and close to terraces, patios, and open windows where their lovely perfume can be enjoyed.

And, they’re a natural in the cutting garden of course! Dianthus are an excellent, long-lasting cut flower – so plant plenty of the mid and tall-stemmed varieties to bring inside for arrangements.

Tickled Pink

Now that you’ve been tickled pink, think you might give these old-time lovelies a try?

A cluster of purple pink Dianthus plumarius flowers in a garden bed.

Compact, mid, or full-sized, there’s a cultivar waiting to add color and fragrance to your garden – and remember to plant some for cutting!

Do you readers have any questions about pinks or other dianthus species? Drop us a line in the comments below and be sure to check out our dianthus growing guide for even more details.

© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Hazzard Seeds, Burpee, and Astor Farms. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

About Lorna Kring

A writer, artist, and entrepreneur, Lorna is also a long-time gardener who got hooked on organic and natural gardening methods at an early age. These days, her vegetable garden is smaller to make room for decorative landscapes filled with color, fragrance, art, and hidden treasures. Cultivating and designing the ideal garden spot is one of her favorite activities – especially for gathering with family and friends for good times and good food (straight from the garden, of course)!

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