Ask A Master Gardener – Darling Dianthus

Although the weather is blustery now, it is not too early to begin planning for spring gardening.  In fact, it might be just the ticket to rid you of the winter blues.  If your landscape has a slope in need of carpeting, a rock garden in need of some color, or a border or path in need of edging, consider growing dianthus as a charming and fragrant addition.

In the carnation family, there are over 300 species of Dianthus and hundreds of hybrids available.  They are often called “pinks,” not because of the color, but from the Latin word pinct meaning pinked or jagged referring to the fringed edges of the blooms.  They are native to Europe, western Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.  Dianthus can be annuals, perennials, and biennials. 

Dianthus can range from two inches to three feet tall, but most varieties are 10–20 inches tall.  They grow in tight upright mounds or ground hugging carpets, making them ideal for borders, rock gardens, and slopes.  They have slender, almost grass-like leaves in blue, grayish, or green that remains attractive year around in milder climates. The blooms have five petals in all shades of white, pink, purple, orange, yellow, red, and color combinations.  Most dianthus are hardy in Zones 3-8, but check the specific variety before planting.

Dianthus will thrive in full sun, but can tolerate some light shade.  Average to dry soil is preferred, but good draining is imperative.  Heavy clay soils will lead to poor results.  Set out new plants in the early to midspring.  Space upright mounding types about a foot apart; carpeting types can be placed 18–24 inches apart with the crown level to the soil surface.  Water lightly if it is a dry spring and if mulch is desired, use it sparingly.  Root rot can be a problem if they remain too wet, so do not mulch heavily with organic mulches. 

The primary bloom period for dianthus is late spring through early summer.  The spicy, fragrant blooms last for several weeks and attract bees and butterflies, especially in the evening.  As blooms fade, they can be individually removed or wait until most or all of the blooming is done and shear the entire plant for a potential rebloom.

One of the most popular perennial species is ground hugging and award-winning Cheddar Pinks, “dianthus gratianopolitanus.”  Cultivars include ‘Bath’s Pink’, with a bright soft pink bloom, including a red ring in the center around a white throat.  ‘Firewitch’ has some of the bluest foliage topped by shocking magenta blooms.  ‘Tiny Rubies’ is a dwarf choice with tiny pink double blooms.

Equally popular is Sweet William, “dianthus barbatus”, a biennial species that readily reseeds.  ‘Double Midget’ and ‘Double Tall’ both deliver a riot of color with double blooms in a range of colors from white through red, pink, and salmon.  As their name implies, the difference in the two cultivars is the height.

 Many of the dianthus species are considered short lived perennials.  This can be countered by dividing them every 2–3 years as the centers die out.  In addition, some of them are biennials and readily reseed.  They are not without problems, including root rot, slugs, and some viruses.  Good garden hygiene and maintenance can alleviate most of these issues.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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