Border Carnations


Carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus and hybrids), with their ragged, “pinked” edges, lovely colors, and long vase life, are staples of the cut flower trade.  They also have a lengthy and celebrated history in gardens, going in and out of fashion many times over the centuries.  The plants are having a renaissance right now, as flower lovers have come to appreciate their tried and true virtues.

About Dianthus

Carnations make lovely garden flowers, especially in early summer.

The dianthus family is large, with over 300 species, and contains carnations of all sizes, not to mention sweet Williams and the short-statured plants known in this country as “pinks”.  In Europe, especially in Great Britain, the term “pinks” is used more generally to include just about all dianthus.  Given the amount of interbreeding among species over the years, this may be the best informal way to categorize the whole group.

The flowers that you buy in bunches at the local florist or supermarket are generally referred to as “florists’ carnations”.  They are specific varieties grown under greenhouse or controlled field conditions and sold in bulk to the floral trade.  Cultivars that grow outdoors in home gardens are categorized as “border” or “garden” carnations.  Between the two categories, the world of beautiful carnations is wide.

Garden Carnations

Carnations are available in lots of cheerful colors and most are fragrant.

Border or garden carnations are generally short-lived perennials, hardy in USDA Zones 6 through 10.  The stems can grow as tall as 3 feet, though many varieties, especially those developed in the last few decades, are considerably shorter.  The stems are erect but tend to arch.  Depending on height, some garden types may need staking or other means of corralling.  The blue-green to gray-green leaves are long, narrow and attractive in their own right.

The singular look of the flowers is a combination of the distinctive ragged or ruffled edges, and the opulent, semi-double or double petal array of each flower.  Most bear a characteristic spicy scent reminiscent of cloves, sometimes with other sweet fragrance notes mixed in.  Available colors range from purest white to near-black, with bi-colored or even tri-colored varieties available from specialty merchants.  While there are no true blue carnations (unless you put a cut stem in a container of water mixed with blue dye), the color and pattern ranges are still impressive.

Modern Garden Carnations

The ‘I Heart You’ Carnations has bright pink blooms that age to near-white.

Modern large-flowered garden carnations are the result of hybridization of several different species.  English author and gardener Vita Sackville West wrote admiringly about the Chabaud carnations, developed by a French hybridizer in the eighteen seventies.  Some Chabaud types, like the pink-flowered ‘La France’ and ‘Benigna’, with white petals laced with red, are still in commerce today.  Another antique variety, ‘Mrs. Sinkins’, combines shorter stature—about 12 inches tall—with big white flowers.

Modern varieties tend to be more compact than some older ones and come in an array of arresting colors and color combinations.  As with many commercial hybrid plants, they are often marketed in named series protected by trademarks.  Each series shares common features, like short stature and unusual coloration. Selecta One’s 2020 Dianthus introduction, ‘I♥U’ is a singular beauty with a compact habit and fluffy flowers that are rose-pink when they first open and age to near white.  Scent First™ ‘Tickled Pink’ bears bright cerise flowers on 10-inch stems. ‘Horatio’, a hybrid splashed with dark red and white, grows to 12 inches.  Little Sunflor™ ‘Amber’, at six to eight inches, is shorter still, with bright yellow petals.  Flow® ‘Grace Bay’ is creamy yellow with narrow red edges, and dimensions similar to those of ‘Amber’.  Super Trouper™ ‘Orange’ may be closer to peach than tangerine, but its unusual coloration stands out.

Growing Carnations

Carnations are some of the best cut flowers you can grow if you choose long-stemmed varieties.

Like other members of the dianthus family, carnations are relatively easy to grow if you give them full sun and well-drained soil on the alkaline side of the pH spectrum.  If you have acid soil, it may be best to install your carnations in medium to large containers or add lime to your garden soil according to package directions.  Gardeners with heavy clay can amend the soil with organic material like Fafard® Premium Natural and Organic Compost.

Humans may love carnations, but garden varmints, like rabbits and deer, generally do not.  If you have cats who roam the garden and are prone to sampling plants, take care, as the flowers can be irritating to feline mouths and stomachs.

At different times and places, carnations have been known by evocative names like “sops-in-wine,” “gillyflowers” and clove pinks.  Whatever you call them, they add both beauty and drama to the summer landscape.

About Elisabeth Ginsburg

Born into a gardening family, Elisabeth Ginsburg grew her first plants as a young child. Her hands-on experiences range from container gardening on a Missouri balcony to mixed borders in the New Jersey suburbs and vacation gardening in Central New York State. She has studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere and has also written about gardens, landscape history and ecology for years in traditional and online publications including The New York Times Sunday “Cuttings” column, the Times Regional Weeklies, Horticulture, Garden Design, Flower & Garden, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. Her “Gardener’s Apprentice” weekly column appears in papers belonging to the Worrall chain of suburban northern and central New Jersey weekly newspapers and online at She and her feline “garden supervisors” live in northern New Jersey.

Five Annual Cut Flowers for Fall

Love-in-a-mist flowers
Love-in-a-mist flowers are airy, colorful and long-lasting. Their pretty puffy seed heads can be dried for winter everlasting arrangements.

Some of the prettiest flowers for cutting are annuals that grow and bloom fast and thrive in cool weather.  Growing them is a snap. Start them in early August, and you should have lots of pretty flowers for cutting by late September or early October.

'Towering Orange' sulfur coreopsis
‘Towering Orange’ sulfur coreopsis is a tall variety that is perfect for fall cutting!

Planting Cut Flowers for Fall

If you are someone who already plants summer cut flowers, you will likely still have zinnias, tall marigolds, and purple cosmos in the garden, but these tend to lose steam towards the end of the season. Removing declining summer cut flowers and filling in the holes with fresh, cool-season bloomers will pay off. Just be sure to turn, smooth, and clean the ground before planting, and top dress with a good, moisture-holding mix that will allow your new cut flower seeds to germinate easily. Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix is a great choice.
Once your area is prepared, sprinkle your seeds of choice over the soil, and then lightly cover with some additional mix and gently pat the area down. Annuals with larger seeds, like sweet peas, will need to be planted at least an inch below the soil. Keep newly sown spots evenly moist with daily misting or watering.
Most annuals germinate quickly, in a week or two. Once new seedlings have emerged, continue providing them with needed moisture, and be sure to remove any weed seedlings. Feed plantlets every two weeks with a little water-soluble flower food. This will help them grow and flower at top speed.

Five Cut Flowers for Fall

1) Sweet Peas

Sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus, 74-85 days from seed) are some of the sweetest smelling cool-season cut flowers, but they require light trellising. This is easily done by securing strong, firm stakes into the ground and lining the spaces between them with trellis netting that the peas can climb up with their tendrils. Renee’s Garden Seeds carries loads of exceptional sweet peas for cutting. The antique ‘Perfume Delight’ is especially fragrant and a little more heat tolerant, which allows them to forge through unexpected warm days.  (Read Renee’s article “All About Sweet Peas” for more information about these pleasing flowers.)

Bouquet of 'Blue Boy'
The classic bachelor’s button for cutting is the long-stemmed ‘Blue Boy’. (photo care of Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

2) Bachelor’s Buttons

Colorful bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus, 65-75 days from seed) come in shades of richest violet-blue, pink, white, and deepest burgundy. Most agree that the blue flowers are the most remarkable and prettiest in a vase. There are lots of compact varieties, but these have short stems. Long-stemmed selections are the best for cutting, but they must be staked for reliable upright growth. ‘Blue Boy’ is an old-fashioned, large-flowered heirloom with tall stems that are perfect for cutting.

3) Sulfur Coreopsis

For fiery color, few cut flowers grow faster than sulfur coreopsis (Coreopsis sulphureus, 50-60 days from seed). The long-stemmed ‘Towering Orange’ produces billows of tangerine orange flowers that will last a long time. These look beautiful in a vase with ‘Blue Boy’ bachelor’s buttons!

'Perfume Delight' sweet peas
Extra fragrant, colorful blooms are the selling point of ‘Perfume Delight’ sweet pea sold by Renee’s Seeds. (photo care of Renee’s Garden Seeds)

4) Love-in-a-Mist

Uniquely lacy flowers make love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena, 63-80 days from seed) especially charming in the garden or a vase. The dried seed pots are also visually interesting, allowing them to double as dried flowers. The flowers come in shades of violet-blue, purple, white, and pink. One of the better Nigella mixes is provided by Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

5) Annual Baby’s Breath

No flower arrangement is complete without a frothy filler flower to add loft and interest. Annual baby’s breath (Gypsophila elegans, 45-50 days from seed) is the standard choice, and ‘Covent Garden Market’ is a tall, airy variety that will bloom until frost. It is very easy to grow, and its small, white, cup-shaped flowers make more colorful blooms stand out in a vase.
Cut flowers brighten our gardens and homes, so consider planting some of these traditional beauties in August for fall bloom. You’ll save money at the farmer’s market and impress your guests.

Zinnias for Colorful Containers & Cut Flowers

Pink and apricot profusion zinnias
Pink and apricot profusion zinnias add soft color to this midsummer flower garden.

Zinnias are summer workhorses in the flower garden. They keep producing radiant flowers—even in the worst heat—and come in a wide range of sizes and colors making them adaptable to practically any garden space. Their value as premium cut flowers and favorite bee and butterfly plants makes them that much more appealing to gardeners. No summer garden should be without a few zinnias.

Tall cactus flowered zinnias
Tall cactus flowered zinnias are some of the nicest zinnias for bouquets.

Tall Zinnias

The long stems, large flowers and bushy stature of tall zinnias (Zinnia elegans) have led to their wide popularity. These easy-to-grow Mexican natives will bloom from summer to frost, if they are deadheaded and moderately maintained. Their flowers have single, semi-double, or double petal arrangements and come in many forms including cactus, dahlia, button, button-like pompons and ruffled forms. What’s more, there are tons of colors available. The pallet includes red, pink, white, green, orange, salmon, yellow and lavender. There are also many bicolored and tricolored varieties. One of the best color combos – for garden or case – is a vibrant mix of pink, rose, green and apricot colored flowers.

Dwarf Zinnias

Zinnia plants vary in height from 1-4 feet, depending on the cultivar. Shorter “tall zinnia” varieties, such as the many large-flowered, short-statured varieties in the Magellan Series, are perfect for containers and low flower borders while wild, free, long-stemmed forms look great in tall borders, vegetable gardens and cutting gardens. The ever-popular chartreuse green ‘Envy‘, rose and green ‘Queen Red Lime‘ and ruffled salmon apricot Senora™ are three complimentary long-stemmed, double-flowered varieties ideal for making quick, vibrant flower arrangements.

Double Zahara Fire
The vibrant Double Zahara Fire is one of the best zinnias for containers and borders.

Bedding Zinnias

Hybrid bedding zinnias are the best for container gardening. These include the wonderfully versatile and lovely single-flowered Profusion zinnias, which come in all colors, and award-winning double-flowered Zahara™ zinnias. The bushy, spreading, slightly taller (18″-24″) ‘Uptown Grape‘ is also a new variety lauded for its prolific blooms and exemplary disease resistance. Another wonderful compact species is the Mexican native Zinnia angustifolia—with ‘Star Orange‘ and the hybrid Raspberry Lemonade Mix being top sellers.

Growing Zinnias

Getting started with zinnia growing is simple. Each spring, in late April to early May, choose the best sunny spot for your zinnias. Clean out the weeds and debris from the area, then work up and smooth the soil. Amend the beds with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend until the soil is light and friable. Finally, surface-sow the zinnia seed, lightly pat them in and gently water. Then keep the planted area evenly moist. Within a week or so your seeds will start sprouting up. From there, it’s just a matter of keeping the plants reasonably hydrated and thinned to a foot apart. Purchased, container-grown zinnias thrive in large pots filled with moisture rich potting soils, such as Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Mix. Growing zinnias is that easy!

Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend pack
Amend zinnia beds with a fertile amendment like Fafard Natural & Organic Compost Blend.

Cutting Zinnias

Zinnia flowers are most spectacular in mid to late summer, so this is the best time to make beautiful table bouquets with long-stemmed varieties. To make a simple zinnia arrangement, choose newly opened, fresh stems and cut them to around 8-12 inches in length. Remove the leaves from the lower part of the stems and then gather the flowers into a tidy, mounded bunch; trim the bottoms uniformly and place them in a vase filled with about 2 cups of water spiked with 1 tablespoon of sugared lemon soda (a great cut flower food). That’s all there is to it!

Zinnia Pests, Diseases, and Problems

Zinnias can have a few troubles. Really tall cultivars can flop in the wind and may need to be staked. The leaves may also develop powdery mildew and leaf spot while also attracting hungry Japanese beetles. To keep my zinnias mildew-free, I gently hand-wash their leaves and space plants well to encourage good air flow. This also discourages outbreaks of fungal spotting. The all-natural GreenCure is also a wonderful remedy for powdery mildew. Another option is to plant disease-resistant selections like the Dreamland Series. To control Japanese beetles, simply pick them off and drown or squash them.
Follow these simple guidelines and you’ll have spectacular zinnias until frost. Whether enjoyed from a patio or balcony or cut and brought indoors to dress up a table, zinnias will bring rich, easy color to your summer life.

Zinnia angustifolia 'Star Orange' flowers
Zinnia angustifolia ‘Star Orange’ Flowers growing in a large container.
Pretty button zinnias
Pretty button zinnias (left) add bright color to this cutting border.