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Garden Pinks

...Fabulous foliage, flowers, and fragrance!
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow

Liesbeth has written for several western gardening publications, including Gardens West and The Gardener for the Prairies. She has also co-authored three gardening books: The Calgary Gardener (with the Calgary Horticultural Society), The Calgary Gardener, Volume Two: Beyond the Basics (with Lesley Reynolds), and 101 Best Plants for the Prairies (with Lesley Reynolds).

June 24, 2007

One plant that makes a big impact in the garden, despite its diminutive stature, is the ever-lovely, old-fashioned garden pink (Dianthus spp.). A close relative of the fragrant florist's carnation, pinks produce tidy, low mounds or spreading carpets of mostly evergreen, pointy, grassy foliage; the leaves are a lovely blue-grey or grey-green and serve as welcome counterpoint, both in colour and texture, to the contrasting foliage of neighbouring plants in the border.

Despite the pleasing foliage, most people grow pinks for their fair flowers, which are produced in abundance over a long period during the summer. Blossoms come in every imaginable shade or combination of pink, red, white, and pastel yellow; they are often adorned with stripes, flakes, flecks, eyes, or margins of a contrasting colour. What's more, the delicate petals can be toothed, fringed, or even bearded with tiny hairs, giving them added visual appeal. Best of all, the blooms of several pinks species will perfume the garden with an amazing, spicy, clove-scented fragrance.

So … with attractive foliage, charming flowers, and exquisite fragrance to commend them, who wouldn't want to grow pinks in their garden? There are many species and cultivars to choose from, ranging from small, dainty rock garden varieties to the much larger and bolder border pinks. The following pinks are all worthy garden inhabitants.

  • D. alpinus (15 cm, 6 in.), alpine pink, bears solitary, single, scentless pink flowers above mounds of narrow, bright green leaves. It is short-lived but very deserving of a spot in rock gardens.
  • D. arenarius (20 cm, 8 in.), sand pink, is similar in habit to D. deltoides, but has larger flowers and blooms later. The solitary, single, deeply fringed white flowers often have a green eye and are very fragrant.
  • D. barbatus (45 cm, 18 in.), sweet William, is a biennial that bears clusters of perfumed, fringed blooms in a wide range of colours, including striped varieties.
  • D. chinensis (70 cm, 28 in.), China pink, is grown as a cool-weather annual. It produces scentless, deeply fringed blossoms that come in a variety of colours and patterns. The grassy foliage is pale to medium green.
  • D. deltoides (20 cm, 8 in.), maiden pink, produces low-growing, dense mats of dark green, grassy foliage and abundant pink, red, or white solitary, single, scentless flowers.
  • D. gratianopolitanus (10 cm, 4 in.), Cheddar pink, forms tidy little mounds of grassy, blue-grey, evergreen foliage, topped by solitary, single, very fragrant, deep pink flowers. Given proper drainage, Cheddar pinks can be very long-lived.
  • D. knappii (40 cm, 16 in.), hairy garden pink, produces mounds of medium green, grassy foliage and solitary, single, toothed, scentless, pale yellow flowers in early summer.
  • D. plumarius (45 cm, 18 in.), cottage, grass, or border pink, has sweetly-scented, fringed pink flowers, borne several to a stem. This centuries-old species is the ancestor of many hardy garden pinks.


Pinks thrive in full sun and average to fertile, slightly alkaline, well-drained soil. Once established, pinks tolerate dry conditions, although they prefer evenly moist soil. Avoid soggy soil; it causes crown rot. When plants resume active growth in the spring, trim dead leaves away from around and underneath the crown of the plant, and feed it with a balanced fertilizer.
To extend the bloom period to 6 weeks or longer, deadhead individual flowers as they fade, leaving new buds and foliage intact. Light afternoon shade during the hottest part of the day will also extend the bloom period and increase pinks' longevity.

The evergreen grassy foliage requires a good winter snowcover; in the absence of snow, cover plants with a winter mulch of leaves or pile them high with branches from evergreen shrubs or trees. 

As pinks are generally short-lived, they should be divided every two or three years to maintain their vigour; division is also recommended when plant centres begin to die out. This task is best accomplished in the spring as new growth starts. All pinks are easy to propagate from cuttings.

Landscape Use:

Dianthus is the perfect plant for small spaces – in rock gardens, as a groundcover towards the front of perennial and mixed borders, spilling over the edge of a stone wall, edging borders or pathways, or filling in the cracks between paving stones. The smallest dianthus are also charming additions to alpine trough gardens. Plant fragrant varieties close to a seating area or along pathways where you can savour their captivating perfume.


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