• Mixed Colors, Mixed Messages: Growing Carnations from Seed

September 20, 2018

You've sent them to your mother for her birthday. You've received them at the hospital when you were feeling under the weather. You've seen them stuck on lapels, on labels for dairy products, and in all sorts of impromptu vases (we happen to like oversized baked bean cans).

Florists don't have the market on carnations...so why don't you stick some carnation seeds in the ground and enjoy them in your garden?

Well, some people have said, they're kind of difficult to germinate.

Carnation seeds can be finicky, but we'll share a simple tip or two to greatly increase your success at starting your own Dianthus caryophyllus plants.

Carnations: Keeping Florists in Business for 2000 Years

Most of the carnations we see today are cultivars created over centuries for their beauty and color. The original carnations came from the Mediterranean region, from where they quickly spread throughout Europe and Asia.

"Over 300 species of Dianthus have been described each with their own ecology and distribution. They range in appearance from modestly creeping herbs to woody shrub-like plants."

— Matt, the guy over at In Defense of Plants

Carnations are a member of the Caryophyllaceae family, and the genus name Dianthus is a nod to Greek's Zeus (dios = god) and anthos (flower). The specific name derives from caryophyllus (nut + leaf) and is an etymological rip-off of the Indian clove tree (Eugenia caryophyllata).

Speaking of rip-offs, we followed Mr. Matt's research source, the government of Australia, from whom we learned about the origins of carnation's nomenclature. Let's give credit where credit's due!

And we still can't get over the fact that the Australian government straight-up calls itself "Australian Government." We're also puzzled that the research referenced above is for The Department of Health and Ageing. I mean, come on. We're working hard to break the stereotype that carnations are funeral flowers!

Send A Message With Carnations

We checked with The Flower Expert to help you with the etiquette of conveying meaning when you give carnations as a gift, and most of the following information came from them. For the rest, we conferred with members of a stalking victim support group.

Overall, carnations represent fascination and a woman's love. Buuuuut you might want to read the fine print:

  • Pink: The original wild carnations from which all others descend were pink, and these (appropriately) represent maternal love.
  • Light Red: Send these if you wish to show admiration: Your boss, a mentor, or backstage at a metal concert's meet and greet.
  • Dark Red: Strong feelings of love; typically given by a woman.
  • White: Pure love and good fortune.
  • Striped: Regret or refusal. In other words, send these if you've just done something stupid and you really, really need to suck up. As for "refusal," well, if you're trying to tell someone to **** off, it's probably best not to send anything at all; that perpetuates the relationship in their mind.
  • White with Pink "+" Signs: "Congratulations! You need to take a paternity test!"
  • Green: These are really popular on St. Patrick's Day, or if you want to comfort someone who's perpetually seasick. See below to find out how to dye them!
  • Purple: Flakiness. The Flower Expert said "capriciousness," but we're not into sesquipedalia. Note, we're not sure if flaky people should send purple carnations, or if these are what you send to flaky people, so we suggest that if you stood someone up for a date, go with a purple striped flower to cover your backside.
  • Yellow: Disappointment and dejection. Example: When your daughter graduates third in her class, give her a bouquet of yellow carnations...or send them when your stalking victim sent you striped carnations.
  • Orange: This color only says one thing: "Sorry your trial didn't work out as you'd hoped!"
  • Pink with Yellow and Red Spots: This is a variety most commonly sent with a card informing the recipient that they may have been infected with an STD.

You can create your own cut colored carnations with a little food dye and your own imagination! Have fun communicating your feelings with carnations, but only if you're not being a total psycho about it.

All laughs aside, stalking is no joke. Help's available, no matter which side of the fence you're on. But if you forgot to send flowers on Mother's Day, there's nothing we can do to help you.  

Carnations in the Garden

The first thing you should know is this: Carnation plants often don't bloom until their second year. So if your plants fail to explode as you expect them to, have patience. They're worth the wait!

Depending on your selected variety, you can use carnations almost everywhere on your property or in your container garden. They're great for borders, rock gardens, and pathway edges. As long as they're not stuck in total shade and you provide minimal maintenance, they'll perform for you throughout the summer.

USDA Hardiness Zones: Carnation varieties have their own zone preferences, but most are perennial in zones 6 to 10. Quick-to-bloom varieties are often grown as annuals in cooler zones.

Sunlight Preferences: Plant your Dianthus caryophyllus where they're sure to get a solid five or more hours each day. Partial shade is fine, especially in the afternoon.

Moisture Requirements: Don't let your carnation plants dry out. Keep the soil consistently moist, but do not overwater them; this will cause the flowers to become discolored.

Soil Preferences: Carnations prefer well-drained, compost-amended soil that's neutral to slightly alkaline. Fertilize monthly during the spring and summer with an all-purpose solution for best blooms.

Plant Size: Carnations can grow between 2' and 3' tall, and dwarf varieties can be as short as 8" high. The spread usually matches each plant's height proportions.

Growth Habit: Carnations tend to be clumping, with most varieties sending up tall flowering stalks. Other, smaller species are creepers. (Please refer to the previous section for more on the latter...or check out this subreddit.)

Bloom Period: Mid-spring through mid-summer; longer when they're deadheaded.

Flowers: Fragrant, single- to multi-layered flowers grow to 2.25" to 3.5" across. There is a ton of color varieties among carnations, and types grown for their striped, barred, or edged patterns. Carnations generally have ragged petal edges.

Foliage: Color and texture vary among different species, but overall, the flowers are small and narrow, growing directly from the stems.

Fragrance: Carnations are among the most fragrant cut flower, and the aroma is most often described as floral and "clovey"...like the smell of your goth high school girlfriend's car interior.

Pests & Diseases: Too little air circulation around the base of the plant can cause crown rot. Keep mulch away from the plant's base. Carnations are deer-resistant!

Maintenance: Deadhead spent flowers to encourage new blooms. Some carnation nerds remove a percentage of buds to enhance flower quality (think quality vs quantity) and this is thought to prevent prolific bloomers from "blowing out" their resources. (Not to be confused with blowing out one's bloomers.)

Harvesting: Some carnation stems support multiple flowers, but most varieties bear single blooms on long, slender stems. Use a sharp, clean knife or set of shears and count up three to four leaf nodes from the plant base. Make a cut at an angle and immediately place the stem in lukewarm water until you're ready to add them to your floral display.

Re-cutting carnation (or any flower) stems under running water the same day and every few days helps prolong their freshness.

Are Carnations Safe for My Pets & Family?

Carnation flowers are sometimes used to decorate cakes and liven up salads, but pet owners should take pause (paws?) before letting their pets chow down on any part of carnation plants. The ASPCA lists them (we think they're referring to the foliage and stems) as toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. According to the organization's website, carnations may cause mild gastrointestinal and skin irritation among animals...and we feel it's always safe to assume the same goes for people.

Growing Carnations from Seed

We strongly recommend starting your carnations indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your last predicted frost. This increases the chance that you'll get a batch of flowers in the first season, and it will allow you to manage the humidity levels carnation seeds seem to appreciate as they emerge.

  • Prepare any container (be sure it's clean; bleach rinses work well) with good drainage holes in the bottom, and fill within 1" from the top with any decent sterilized potting soil.
  • Sprinkle seeds about 2" apart on the surface, and cover with no more than 1/8" soil.
  • Gently spray the soil with a mister, and then place plastic wrap or a baggie over the top. Secure with a rubber band.
  • Place in a sunny window where the ambient temperatures range between 65° and 70°F and your pots will receive at least 5 hours of sunlight each day.
  • If you've planted in seedling trays (or, in egg cartons as our customer Maggie did), move them to bigger containers once they have more than three "true leaves."
  • Once they're about 6" tall, harden them off before planting them 12' to 18' apart in their permanent garden locations.

The plastic wrap really seems to make a big difference with our customers, and it's Gardening Know How's recommended method, too. Of course, wrapping things in plastic made a big difference for the town of Twin Peaks, but for entirely different reasons.  

Sourcing Your Carnation Seeds

Are you a small-scale nursery grower? Are you a carnation aficionado growing carnations from seed who wants to shame your garden club peers with vibrant colors and patterns? Or maybe you're tired of raiding cemeteries so you can have flowers to give to your mom every time you pay her a visit.

Whatever your reason for growing carnations, let us know what we can do for you. We offer custom quantities and custom-printed packets, and only the freshest, highest-quality seeds.


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