Carnations have been a reliable staple in beautiful bouquets for decades. No wonder we regard them with such fondness! It’s also no wonder, given they tend to be associated with florists, we feel they can be grown only by the experts. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth, because not only are carnations easy to grow in our own gardens, we can even, with a bit of luck, grow them from the very stems that arrive in the bouquets! Before we try, however, let’s get to grips with the basics!
Carnations come in many different guises. Other than those in bouquets, the ones we know best are dwarf (low growing) and spray (the sort with several flowers per stem). The variety most often seen in gardens are ‘pinks.’ These frothy, clumping dianthus produce masses of blooms in late spring and summer, especially if regularly deadheaded, and they come in tones of pink, salmon, red or white, with a very distinctive blue or grey-green foliage.
When we think of ‘bouquet’ style carnations, however, we’re thinking more of the classic, larger carnations – the sort that grow up to 60cm in height and which have just one flower per stem. These can be easily grown from readily-available seed (look for ‘doubles,’ especially the ‘Chabaud’ variety). Chabaud are a perennial plant (they grow on from year to year), but if you live in a frosty part of the country, they are best grown as an annual (a warm season-only plant).
As for the ‘true’ bouquet style carnations, obtaining the seed is all-but impossible (cut flower growers tend to buy in young plants). But this is where the fun begins because carnations are able to be grown from cuttings (pieces of plant without roots). Assuming you have received a bouquet containing carnations, draw out a stem and look at it closely. If it has no side pieces growing from it, you won’t be able to start your own plant from it. If you do spot a little ‘side branch,’ gently pull (don’t snip) it off in a downward direction. Pluck off the lower third of the leaves from your ‘piece,’ and dip the end of the stem into rooting hormone (obtainable from garden centres).
While the cutting is in the rooting hormone, prepare a pot of growing medium. General commercial potting mix is fine, but it can help to add a handful of perlite to this, or you may, instead, choose to fill your pot with cacti growing mix. However you do it, you will have created the good drainage which carnations demand. Next, dampen the pot of growing mix, and gently push the lower third of your cutting into it. Pop your cutting into a cool spot, out of direct sunlight, and keep the mix damp but never wet. If the weather is hot, mist it occasionally using a spray bottle of water.
After 2 or 3 weeks (or longer), you may start to notice new leaf growth around the base of the cutting. If you do, this is your sign the carnation piece is developing roots. Move it into brighter light but don’t consider repotting it into a larger container until the plant is 3 to 4 times its original size.
Florist carnations are often grown in a rarefied environment such as a covered greenhouse, so don’t be disappointed if your first cutting doesn’t ‘take.’ Keep trying, and if you do succeed, be prepared to give your plant the royal treatment by growing it in a container, rather than the garden, and giving it greenhouse or covered space in the cooler months. In the meantime, have fun by growing easy-to-start cuttings taken from the many other varieties of ‘garden’ carnations that are available.
Carnations are an incredibly satisfying flower to grow, and now is the perfect time to start them from seed or cuttings. Enjoy!