By Julie Christensen
You’re probably familiar with baby’s breath — ubiquitous in wreaths, bridal displays and floral arrangements — but you might not have thought of it as a garden plant. Baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata) makes a low-maintenance addition to the perennial garden. Like lavender or catmint, baby’s breath creates a charming, soft look in the garden. Because the plant blooms from early summer to fall, it is an excellent filler for hiding other perennials after they’re done blooming. Pair it with delphinium, iris, columbine, poppies, yarrow and other cottage garden flowers.
Baby’s breath is best known for its white blooms, but the plant also comes in pink and rose. Hardy in plant hardiness zones 3 through 9, it is a long-lived perennial. The plant grows 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, with a gentle rounded form.
To grow baby’s breath, plant nursery transplants or start it from cuttings. You can also grow baby’s breath from seed, although it probably won’t bloom the first summer. Spread seeds in a seed starting tray filled with a lightweight growing medium. Cover the seeds with a very light layer of soil – 1/16 inch and mist the tray with water from a spray bottle. Cover the seed tray with plastic wrap and keep it in a warm location. Seeds germinate best when the soil temperature is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Plant baby’s breath in full sun, in well-draining soil with a pH around 7.0. Add lime to acidic soils to raise the pH. Amend heavy, clay soils with plenty of organic matter, such as compost, manure and peat moss, because the plants will rot during long, wet winters.
Growing Tips for Baby’s Breath
Baby’s breath doesn’t require a lot of maintenance and in fact, too much fertilizer and water can cause soft growth and few blossoms. Keep the soil on the dry side and provide a light application of a balanced fertilizer in the spring as new growth emerges.
Cut the plants back midsummer if they become straggly and unkempt. Cutting them back encourages a fresh batch of blooms from late summer to fall. Tall plants benefit from staking. Baby’s breath is one perennial that doesn’t need division. The fleshy roots are fragile and easily damaged so it’s better to leave baby’s breath alone and shear it back to control growth. Double blossomed varieties are grafted onto a root stock, so take care not to cut below the graft line or the plant will revert to the character of the root stock.
Baby’s breath rarely experiences problems with insect or disease pests. You can prevent mildew or mold issues by spacing baby’s breath so air circulates freely and using drip irrigation instead of overhead sprinklers.
To use the flowers in floral arrangements, cut them when half the blooms are open. The remaining blooms will open in a day or two, extending the life of the flowers. To dry baby’s breath, cut them early in the morning when the blooms are just opening. Hang them in a dry, warm location for two weeks, or until completely dry.
Baby’s breath contains a sap that some people find irritating. The irritation is mild and lasts only a few minutes. If you experience itching or a rash, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water and wear gloves when handling this plant.
Varieties and Types of Baby’s Breath Plants
‘Bristol Fairy’ is the variety you’re probably familiar with. This plant produces small, white blossoms from April to August, depending on your climate. ‘Viette’s Dwarf’ is, as the name implies, a compact variety, growing only 18 inches tall. The plant has pink to white flowers that bloom from May to August. ‘Perfekta’ produces larger, white, double flowers in June and grows 3 feet tall. ‘Compacta plena’ grows only 12 inches tall, with white blooms that appear from April to August.
For more information, visit the following links:
Gypsophila paniculata from the Royal Horticulture Society in London
Gypsophila paniculata ‘Bristol Fairy’ from the Missouri Botanical Garden
When she’s not writing about gardening, food and canning, Julie Christensen enjoys spending time in her gardens, which include perennials, vegetables and fruit trees. She’s written hundreds of gardening articles for the Gardening Channel, Garden Guides and San Francisco Gate, as well as several e-books.