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Dianthus, also known as Pinks

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On special this week in our perennial department is the entire selection of Dianthus. Garden dianthus are commonly called pinks, because the edges of the petals are often notched as if cut with a pinking shears. Dianthus is one of the mainstays of the “English Cottage Garden” look, which points you in the direction of their siting and care.

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In our area, the pinks give their best bloom in spring—April, May, early June. Sometimes they cough up a few flowers in the summer and fall as well, especially in cooler years. As perennials go, they tend to be short-lived. You may find that they need to be replaced after several years.
They offer pink, red, white or bi-colored flowers, often very fragrant. Carnations, the cut flower, are a type of dianthus, so that might give you a sense of the fragrance. (Carnations are not good garden plants, but if you use your imagination, some of the double pinks look like wee carnations.)

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Even when not in bloom, ‘Bath’s Pink’ can be a nice groundcover, photographed at the Missouri Botanical Garden in July.

Many of the cultivars offer silver or blue evergreen foliage, which can be attractive when the plant is not in bloom. We found over the years that an older variety, ‘Bath’s Pink,’ can make a good silver ground cover for small areas. Our most popular dianthus is ‘Feuerhexe’ or “Fire Witch,” bearing electric pink flowers on blue foliage. It was the Perennial Plant Association’s Perennial of the Year a few years back. This time of the year we generally have a dozen or more cultivars in stock, with the early ones like ‘Fire Witch’ and ‘Tiny Rubies’ just coming into bloom now.

Plant them in containers, or on a slope, or in a raised bed… somewhere with good drainage. Sodden winter soil will kill them. Add a little lime to the soil when you plant, and site them in a sunny spot. As with many perennials, if you have a chance to pluck off the dead flowers, it will encourage the plant to send up additional blooms, extending the flowering season. My experience is that they go more or less heat dormant in the hottest part of summer, sending out new growth starting early to mid-September. The new growth will have more intense blue/silver foliage. Don’t prune, trim, cut back, etc during July and August. Do it in the early fall.

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Dianthus don’t mind the cold! Snow on pots of Dianthus, April 7, 2007, Behnke’s Garden Center at Beltsville

As I age, I am becoming more and more fond of fragrant flowers. (This is a change over time. I used to be a hardcore horticulturist, interested in flowers that look and smell like rotten meat and are pollinated by flies and carrion beetles. I’m still interested, but no longer want them in the garden. Much to the relief of the neighbors.) If I didn’t happen to own a wooded lot without much sun, you can bet that I’d save some space for the pinks. Perhaps at that retirement cottage we plants people all dream about…

by Larry Hurley

Larry Hurley worked at Behnke Nurseries from 1984 until the business was composted in 2019, primarily with the perennial department in growing, buying and sales.

Before landing at Behnke’s, he worked as a technician in a tissue culture lab, a houseplant “expert” at a florist shop, and inventory controller at a wholesale nursery in Dallas. With this and that, ten years passed.

When his wife Carolyn accepted a position at Georgetown University, Larry was hired at Behnke’s for the perennial growing department and garden center at Behnke’s Largo location.

In 2021, Larry and Carolyn moved back to Wisconsin to be closer to family and further from traffic. After 37 years in a shaded yard in Maryland, he is happy to have a sunny lot where he can grow all sorts of new perennials, if only he can keep the rabbits at bay. He also enjoys cooking, traveling, and the snowblower.

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