We often get asked how to grow garden pinks? What soil conditions do they like? What feed is the best? Are they best grown in a pot or the ground? Do they need trimming?
So we thought we would try to answer some of the top questions we get asked.
To grow them successfully you need to know a bit about them, Pinks have been in existence for many hundreds of years, and are generally thought to have been brought into Britain by the Normans, presumably shortly after 1066.
Other than the species pinks one of our oldest named variety is Pheasant Eye which dates back to pre 1600s!! Obviously the plant we have today isn't that old, but from continual propagation of that variety it's been maintained and kept alive for that long, this is true for all named varieties.
Pinks although can be grown from seed due to their nature and cross-breeding no seed will come "true to name form" for example you can sow 1,000 Mrs Sinkins seed and potentially none of them would be Mrs Sinkins!
Pinks are native grass plants and would in their natural habitat grow in meadows with other flowering plants such as Sorrel and Daisy. They would use these plants to support their flower stems, this is why they have grass-like foliage and long flower stems this is particularly noticeable in the older species types like Plumarus and Carthusianorium.
With much breeding work the more modern garden pinks, this is anything dated 1900 onwards (though that still seems like a long time ago to me!) the foliage and flowers can be a lot more self supporting and less "floppy" compared to the older varieties like Mrs Sinkins, Petticoat Lace or Bridal Veil.
But how do we grow pinks? I hear you ask, well just like growing grass Pinks are actually quite simple with very few requirements.
Soil conditions: Pinks like a nice sunny position and are fairly tolerant to most garden soils, however they prefer a well drained area so if you have clay or poorly drained soil add some grit into the soil where you are planting them this will prevent too much moisture around the root ball and prevent possible root rot during heavy wet weather - avoid using sand as this can actually make the roots wetter as sand holds more moisture than grit! They grow very well on chalk as they like the neutrality of the soil but will tolerate most PH levels, though the more neutral the better.
Pinks don't have deep roots so in the heat of the summer months or prolonged windy days they can dry out quickly (just like grass can!) so extra watering may be needed during very hot dry spells. Prolonged droughts, erratic watering or care can also stop them from growing or flowering properly as the plants won't have the energy to produce new growth or flower stems.
If your garden is heavy clay or you have tried growing pinks before but with no success in the garden then why not try growing them as a pot plant, for compost any good multi-purpose potting compost is ideal. We don't generally name a brand as compost companies are forever bringing out "new ones" and sometimes a particular brand is popular in one part of the country and not another. But so long as it says "Multi-purpose potting compost" on the bag you generally can't go too wrong. We do however try and stay away from John Innes - as we find their compost can be quite heavy and the pinks don't always like it - that said if you grow happily in it and have good results then don't change just for us!
Pinks make really nice container plants and with their scented blooms can fragrant an area with ease. You can also grow them in window boxes or even hanging baskets - though they do not trail but some blooms like Unique, Cockenzie Pink and London Poppet are naturally floppy in nature so can compliment a basket display.
Feeding - this is essential for ALL plants not just garden pinks, to get the best out of a plant you need to nurture it, feed it, care for it. You cannot put a plant in the ground or pot and ignore it yet expect it to grow perfectly for you, flower profusely and return year upon year without any care or attention - none of us flourish under those conditions so why expect your plants to? Sounds harsh but you will be surprised the amount of times we have been complained at because "the plant was put in the ground and ignored" and then wondered why it failed. Plants need care and attention just like we do, so feed on a regular basis (a little and often is our moto) you will be rewarded with beautiful foliage and a stunning display. If a plant is in a pot it will rely on you solely for all it's nutrients and water so to keep it happy you need to ensure it is cared for.
What type of feed to use? There are many products on the market, from soluble to slow release to liquid feeds. During the growing season we use a high potash feed which is sold in powder form that you mix and measure into water to use as and when required. On the nursery and due to the volume of plants we grow we use a very diluted liquid feed through our watering system, which means every time we water we give them a small dose of feed at the same time. For you at home it all depends on how many plants you have to what method works best. As to which plant food to use either our own High Potash plant food as it is what we use here on the nursery or alternatively Phostrogen is satisfactory. Tomorite is OK for short term use as its PH balance is quite acidic, so if used too often you can end up with lots of foliage and less flowers.
Watering? So now you know what they like to grow in and to feed but how much water should you give? Well this is one of the hardest questions to answer as there are so many variables that have to be taken into account first, like how big is the plant? where is it positioned? is it grown in the garden or a pot? Where abouts in the country does it reside? Open or closed garden? Sea or mountain air? what variety is it? - some varieties are more tolerant than others to overwatering. So with all these variables in mind we will try and answer your question here. If your plant is being grown in a pot then the simplest way to tell if it needs water or not is to lift the pot up if the pot is nice and light then it needs watering - how much water to give it? Put it in a saucer of water overnight the next day throw away any excess water. The plant will naturally take up the amount of water it needs and will do that within a 12 hour period.
If your pinks are planted in the garden then let nature do its magic, if you are experiencing some lovely nice warm weather, or particularly windy but dry conditions these can dry out the plant, pinks when overly dry will stop flowering and not put any new growth out, their leaves will start to shrivel, go yellow and crisp up - this is their way of telling you they desperately need water - similar response to grass. What you mustn't do in this case is drench the plant as excess water as discussed earlier is problematic and can do more harm than good. In the heat of summer or dry windy weather a little and often watering is key to a healthy plant so for example a regular sprinkling of water over a few days will be more beneficial than an erratic drenching, leaving to dry then drenching again approach.
Winter care - as we have established Pinks do not like being overly wet for prolonged periods - this can therefore be quite an interesting time - for our winters are not known to be nice and dry, and if you live in certain parts of the UK your average rainfall is, to say the least, on the high side during the winter months. That said if your pinks are in good free drained soil then there is no reason why, even if you live in the outer Scottish Highlands you can't be successful in growing Pinks all year round. In the Autumn we recommend you tidy each plant up, cutting back any long straggling plant growth, remove all flower stalks and tidy up any dead leaves or foliage. Picture on left shows the plant at the end of the summer. Plant on the right shows it after it has been tidied up ready for winter.
During the winter months the cooler air temperatures may cause certain varieties to have purple marks on the leaves, some varieties are affected worse than others - this is nothing to worry about and is purely caused by the cooler temperatures and dormancy in the plant, once the weather improves they will disappear as the plant grows and matures.
When do pinks flower? This depends on the variety, whether they are grown outside or in and what the weather is doing but generally they start flowering from early April. Some varieties repeat flower i.e. Long Flowering as the name suggest they have a long repeat flowering ability, but.... as mentioned above this all depends on how much care and attention you give the plant. Regular deadheading encourages further flowers, feeding and water you will have a wonderful repeat flowering plant that will give you a colourful display all summer long. Some varieties, mostly the heritage range will only have one flush of flower for the year but as with everything there are variables to this rule.
Top tip for flower care: When trimming the flower stalks off don't just remove the tips take the whole flower stem, cut towards the centre of the plant we normally leave about 1 or 2" from the base of the plant and cut the flower stalk back to there, this ensures the plant will form new growth from the centre of the plant and keep it more compact and tidy (see winter care above for flower removal). If the flower stalks are left on the plant or only the tips removed then new plant growth will form up and along the flower stem, the weight of this new growth then makes it fall to the ground and the plant will then concentrate it's effort on the flower stem growth rather than creating any new growth in the centre of the plant and over time you can end up with the "monk effect" an outside circle of plant growth and nothing in the middle.
If you are wanting your flowers for exhibition or to cut, prevent water damage to the bloom by always watering your plants from the base. If you are cutting the bloom always pick the flowers when they are almost fully open - not in bud because if you cut them too tight you risk the bloom either not opening or the scent not forming.
Most common problems/pests?
Caterpillars, there is a little moth caterpillar that will attack the flower rather than the plant, it will make a tiny hole in the flower bud then burrow in and eat the contents and then move onto the next flower bud, leaving you with a plant full of empty flower buds but no flowers. It is a harmless pest other than you lose your colourful display, almost impossible to see with the naked eye but relatively easy to get rid of with a systemic insecticide, used as advised on the bottle it will effectively remove any troublesome pests on your plants.
Slugs and snails - will very rarely eat Pinks, the grass-like foliage is not to their liking but if there is nothing more interesting to eat they may enjoy a flower bud or two, though generally they are not too much of a bother.
Flower Thrip, is less common if grown outside. This is a tiny aphid that if left unattended can cause a problem to the flowers on your pinks and is especially bothersome if you are growing for exhibition as the flower thrip will literally strip some of flower of it's colour leaving it blotchy and unsightly to look at. It is very hard to see with the eye but again can be easily controlled/eradicated with SB Invigorator.
Brown Bug is another aphid pest and can become a big problem even death to the plant if left unattended. Brown bug (a type of greenfly) will literally strip the sap out of the stems of the plant and you will often only notice you have an infestation once dead or wilting leaves are visible on the plant. It is quite hard to see but can be easily controlled/eradicated with SB Invigorator over a period of time.
Rabbits or Deer find Pinks rather delectable and can be a bit of a nuisance, the only plus to rabbits munching on your pinks is that they do an amazing job of pruning them and the plants generally recover bushier than ever!
And that's it, they really are that easy and simple to grow and will reward you with some beautiful scented blooms that can be used as cut flowers or just enjoyed in the flower border.
Thanks for reading.