Sweet William Dianthus Arctic fire flowers

Loose, ethereal and pleasingly wild: Dianthus ‘Arctic Fire’. Photograph: Alamy

Too common and sold in cellophane by the bucketload outside petrol stations and supermarkets, the carnation is the last-resort flower. But forget stiff, frilly pompoms for funerals and cheap filling around pricier blooms: think tall stems, incredible scent and tiny crimson flowers. Think summer meadows, bumblebees and the edge of a gravel path. Choose carefully, plant differently and the much maligned dianthus – carnation or pink are its common names – is loose, ethereal and pleasingly wild. It’s heavy with nectar and pollen-rich, and it lasts for months, too.

In the garden


Carthusian pink (Dianthus carthusianorum)
Carthusian pink (Dianthus carthusianorum) is a robust, long-lived perennial. Photograph: Arco Images GmbH/Alamy

Carthusian pink (Dianthus carthusianorum) has tiny, intense carmine flowers atop tall stems that knit happily into modern perennial plantings, with their meadow-mix of umbels, spires and button-like dots. The flowers appear from plum-coloured buds in early summer, punctuating the rhythm of softer surrounding plants with height, structure and a pop of colour. The delicacy of this pink belies a robust, long-lived perennial. It stays upright to a height of 30cm without staking. It can be densely planted among other perennials without blocking their light. Sarah Price used it this way in the Olympic Park meadows.

In cracks and on gravel paths


Dianthus cruentus in Cleve West's show garden at Chelsea 2011
Blood pink (Dianthus cruentus in Cleve West’s show garden at the Chelsea flower show in 2011. Photograph: Rob Whitworth Garden Photography/Alamy

Dianthus thrive on poverty, relishing cracks and crevices. Scrape a hole in a gravel path, drop in alpine pink (D. alpinus) and push back the gritty mulch. The lack of soil fertility creates an abundance of simple, pink flowers and a neat, tight, green cushion of tiny evergreen leaves 10-20cm tall, the roots cool under the grit. Alpine pink self-seeds easily in gravel and is happy to encounter the odd flip-flop or wellington boot. Aim for lots of repetition of the same plant, rather than different solitary dots.

Blood pink (D. cruentus) similarly likes to be dry but not too cosy. This plant was the much talked about star of Cleve West’s 2011 Chelsea show garden. Tucked between the stones of a gabion wall, its deep ruby flowers bob above blue-green foliage 10-20cm tall. Snip off the spent flowers to encourage the plant to spread.

In pots

Green banks and grassy verges, shore and hillside meadows, dry commons and roadside banks: reconnect the large pink (D. superbus) with its wild roots in airy, loosely planted pots. Use sharp drainage, a big pot and an open, sunny spot for something brimming and spilling with flowers for months. Its pale, filigree petals and reedy, 50-80cm stalks mix well with grasses and umbels. Switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’) has transparent panicles of tiny plum flowers in summer that create a gossamer effect. Siberian melic (Melica altissima ‘Alba’) has clinging white seeds that gleam and catch the light. Add white laceflower (Orlaya grandiflora) in pure white or the wild carrot Daucus carota ‘Dara’ with a flushed rose or mulberry tone for a strong vertical. Otherwise, underplant with rosy mauve thyme, such as Mediterranean creeping thyme (Thymus longicaulis). The large pink is a herbaceous perennial, so it can be cut back quite hard in spring when new growth starts.

On a living roof

Any forlorn strip of asphalt can be turned into a constellation of deep-rose stars, provided it’s strong and watertight. Maiden pink (D. deltoides) planted with woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) and tiny reticulate irises (Iris reticulata) creates a Venetian-hued bee- and bird-filled paradise. Each stem holds a single flower, creating a handsome clump. Plant generously into the framed, membraned roof of a shed, outbuilding or bike shelter, filled to 8cm with free-draining compost. The light, open conditions echo the airy mountainous habitat of the alpine dianthus, creating an abundance of small, vivid stars, floating 10-20cm above emerald-green mats right through summer. Maiden pink is drought-tolerant, but it’s a herbaceous perennial, so the foliage dies back in winter. No green roof? Plant in gritty compost in a container or use to edge a well-drained border.

For insects

Pollinators love pinks. The single, open blooms of species dianthus that sway above wiry stems are nectar-rich, laden with pollen and heavily scented. Bumblebees, honeybees and hoverflies all love the long season of the dianthus nectar bar. Pollination of carthusian pink and maiden pink is almost solely by butterflies. Yet tinkering hybridisers have tended to breed tightly petalled buxom fusspots with little room for pollination or a proboscis. They are often sterile. D. ‘Elizabethan Pink’ is an exception: with five pale flat petals, each with a velvety maroon outline, it entices with its open habit of evergreen leaves and flowers to 25cm tall. It is suitable for even urban gardens, provided the air is clean and they are open to the sky.

Plant offer

Buy 12 plugs of Dianthus deltoides ‘Arctic Fire’ for £11.98, or 24 plugs for £14.96 (prices include UK mainland p&p). To order, call 0330 333 6856, quoting ref GU229, or go to theguardian.com/offers/plants. Delivery in August.