Tickled pink

Image of Robin Lane Fox

It would not be an English summer without roses. They are flowering by the hundred on the roof of my house, up the nearby hedges and in pots where they are surprisingly happy. It would also not be an English summer without the dianthus. Its family contains the scented pinks and double flowered carnations that are such a part of underplanting and summer buttonholes. This year mine are doing surprisingly well.

Grey leaved and stripily coloured, pinks are a classic edging for borders with roses and summer campanulas. They flower madly for a fortnight and no other plant has their combination of colours and history. Pinks were once called gillieflowers and some of the best were already in English gardens four hundred years ago. The problem for most of us is that many of them last only for two or three years nowadays and have to be frequently replaced.

Recently I dug out two raised beds and refilled them with sack after sack of sharp grit and good compost. The grit is now in the majority and almost everything that formerly disliked these beds likes them much more now. The welcome exceptions are slugs who do not enjoy sliming their way over a gravelly surface. The winners are the varieties of dianthus, not one of which has died in the winters since I made the change. It is obvious what pinks really, really want. They must have sharp drainage, especially to keep them free of wet soil in winter. If you keep on losing your dianthus each year, buy a bag of sharp grit and dig it into the soil where they stand. True grit is like very fine gravel, with a diameter less than a garden pea’s. Gravel from a garden path is too big and no good for the purpose.

Almost all the best varieties of dianthus are man-made or selected. Their National Collections are based in the south of England where the soil is often the alkaline type which they prefer. Throughout my gardening life many of the best forms of dianthus have been supplied by Allwoods, now at London Road, Hassocks, West Sussex (www.allwoods.net). They still supply by post and have an excellent range of garden hybrids, including their own original allwoodii forms that flower so exceptionally freely. Their list of Malmaison carnations and perpetual flowering carnations is still the starting point for anyone keen to grow their own bouquets and buttonholes. If only the pest, red spider, had never been invented, I would gladly grow little else under glass.

Dianthus Gran’s Favourite

The National Collection of Old Pinks is in limey Hampshire, one of the family’s favourite habitats at Southview Nurseries (www.southviewnurseries.co.uk). They have a splendid array of fine, but neglected, varieties. However the nursery can be visited only by special arrangement (see website). Both Allwoods and Southview still list Dianthus Bats Double Red, one of my special old favourites for colour and scent. This dark red double form has a definite scent of cloves. Unusual pinks turn up in many nurseries but these two lists are good places in which to chase up less-remembered beauties from the past.

Here are a few of my own favourites, all of which can be tracked through the RHS Plantfinder. Britain’s array of pinks is still unsurpassed in the world. From Somerset I first bought the single small flowered glowing Brympton Red, still offered by Allwoods. It was named from the Somerset garden of the fine house at Brympton D’Evercy where the lady owner rightly prized it. No other single red with dark markings glows with such intensity. Among the much-loved laced and striped varieties I remain loyal to the persistent Gran's Favourite. It was introduced to me, and I think to cultivation, by a great doyenne of the dianthus, Mrs Desmond Underwood, who used to boom advice at her customers from beneath her vividly coloured hat at the RHS London summer shows, now only a delightful memory. The dark maroon-brown markings, or lacing, on her Dianthus Gran's Favourite are particularly clear. I think of her, a fountain of free advice, whenever this variety comes into flower. By long habit I have become a dianthus collector. The happy result is that my plants are superimposed with memories of the characters who first sold them to me years ago.

Dianthus Musgrave’s Pink

If Gran's Favourite is elusive, try Laced Romeo instead, but remember to dead head it next week when the flowers fade. Dead heading is essential to keep pinks going from year to year but it is one of life’s great pleasures under the fading light of a summer evening. A big pair of scissors does the job very well and unlike most secateurs, scissors do not crush the tubular stems of the dianthus under attack. Among the many flecked varieties, with darker markings on their flowers, I succeed well with Waithman Beauty. Among the whites nothing surpasses Musgraves Pink, the supposedly correct name for what used to be called Charles Musgrave. It is a lovely old variety with a green marking in the middle of its flower.

In the 1970s and 1980s, bigger double flowered varieties with names such as Cranmere Pool and Widecombe Fair began to be brought to the London shows from growers down in Dorset. They flower very freely but lack the charm of older varieties to which I remain loyal. One of the oldest is Dianthus carthusianorum, which was once at home in the walls of Carthusian monasteries. In the 1990s it suddenly began to be popularised by avant-garde nurseries. Its taller green stems and grassy green leaves were thought to mix well with feathery ornamental grasses. I have duly reinstated it, without the dull grasses, but I must record that the flower colour varies in the current nursery stock. All of it is raised from seed but not all of it then flowers in the best colour. In the early 1980s the rosy flowers on this dianthus were usually much deeper and more intense. I bought it again in 2004 to rejoin fashion but found I had been sold a paler and less impressive variation. Buy it only in flower, if you can.

Laced Romeo

Seed is also the way to multiply the easiest members of the family, the forms of Dianthus deltoides. The stunning red Brilliant deserves its name and so does Flashing Light, now renamed Leuchtfunk. These very small flowered forms are so easy to grow and are spectacular between paving stones or on top of walls. Dead-heading is crucial for their survival. Also from seed packets I like to raise the easy Dianthus knappii, a coarse plant in expert opinion, which judges by a standard of grey leaved neatness. In fact this pale yellow pink is extremely charming and remains in flower when the others are all over.

More than 550 varieties of dianthus are still listed in British nurseries. If you want an impression of the range and devotion of British gardening, the pink is the place to start. I started 55 years ago and am still killing and preserving only a fraction of what this island has on offer.

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