Made for the Shade : What You Need to Know About Growing Fuchsias in Our Coastal Climate

<i> Mary Ellen Guffey specializes in annual flowers and fuchsias. </i>

Fuchsias are probably the most gratifying of all flowering plants because they bloom nearly all year, are inexpen sive and easily propagated, and they thrive in our marine climate. If you’re thinking about adding one or more of these versatile, shrubby perennials somewhere to your garden, or if you’ve already got one and wonder how to make it bloom more profusely, this fuchsia primer will supply you with all the essential information you need.

Selection: First, decide whether you want an upright fuchsia in the ground or a trailing variety in a hanging basket or other container. Many gardeners think of fuchsias as only basket plants, but those in the ground are much easier to care for, and they tolerate stress far better than pot-grown plants. Whatever you decide, buy a healthy fuchsia from a reputable nursery. For a container fuchsia, choose one that is bushy and well branched; for an upright, pick one with sturdy stems already staked and trained.

Select plants with labels that describe the growing characteristics. If there is a name but no description, ask the nursery attendant how that particular variety grows. If you’ve never had fuchsias before, start with a tried-and-true variety. Some of the easiest trailing cultivars are ‘Swingtime,’ ‘Gay Fandango,’ ‘Marinka’ and ‘Red Spider.’ Excellent uprights are ‘Checkerboard,’ ‘Cardinal,’ ‘New Fascination’ and ‘Display.’


Planting: Fuchsias will sunburn when exposed to too much light, but they won’t bloom in total shade. The challenge is to find or create a spot that provides strong, indirect light most of the day. Full morning sun for a few hours is excellent for fuchsias, but the hot midday or afternoon sun will bake them. Commercial growers and ardent hobbyists grow profusely blooming specimens in lath or shade houses. Plants also can be placed under high branching trees or overhanging eaves, porches or patio covers. Fuchsias need good air circulation but should not be subjected to strong winds. When the plants are crowded together, insects and diseases proliferate.

Before planting fuchsias in the ground, check the drainage by digging a hole about a foot deep and a foot wide and filling it with water. If the water does not drain in three to five hours, choose a new location or improve the drainage by elevating the area (use bricks, boards, railroad ties, rocks). Then enlarge the hole to at least 18 x 18 inches. Mix one or more amendments--redwood compost, leaf mold garden compost, dried manure, builder’s sand or potting soil--with the soil for a light, friable planting medium.

Redwood baskets are favorites for container fuchsias, but wire and moss, clay or plastic can be used. Always use good potting soil--never garden soil. Either buy a commercial mix or make your own by combining two parts organic planter mix with one part redwood compost and -part horticultural perlite. ) Leave the newly purchased fuchsia in its pot for a week or two, until it gets used to its new location. Also, don’t put a tiny, two-inch fuchsia in a large pot. Small plants in large pots often drown because their roots can’t absorb all the water held by the pot. To fill a large basket, use either a gallon-size fuchsia or those from two four-inch pots (use the same variety). Fuchsias grow quickly; a plant in a four-inch container can become a large exhibition plant within five months.

Growing: The more food a fuchsia gets the more it flowers. Every expert has his or her favorite fertilizer products and special feeding regimens, but the truth is that fuchsias respond to any acid-based fertilizer. Fuchsias in containers have a special need for regular feeding, because nutrients are leeched out by the frequent waterings. Most gardeners prefer fertilizers high in nitrogen before blooms appear and those high in phosphorus and potash afterward. One successful commercial grower uses a fish-base emulsion throughout the entire growing season. Regardless of what you use, apply it routinely while the fuchsias are growing, from about January through September. For fast results, use a diluted fertilizer with every watering or once a week.

To produce the most flowers, fuchsias must be pinched back. That means removing the two tiny leaves at the end of each branch, so that two new branches develop at that point. Force yourself to do this, even if buds are visible; for every two buds sacrificed, four or more blooms will appear later. From January to mid-April, pinch all new growth on basket varieties. On uprights, begin pinching once the plants reach the desired height. About six weeks before you want flowers to show up, quit pinching. During the blooming season, remove faded blooms and seed pods. This will keep the plants well-groomed and prolong flowering.

Fuchsias should be watered when they dry out. In the ground, this may be only once or twice a week. Fuchsias in containers, however, are far more demanding. In the spring, when the weather is cool and they have not yet developed fully, the watering schedule may be two or three times a week. When the weather warms and plants are large, you’ll want to water once every day or two. Early morning is the best time for watering. Occasionally hose off the undersides of the leaves, to discourage insects.

Fuchsias are cool-climate plants, and it’s normal for them to wilt in hot, dry weather. So don’t be surprised if this happens, even if the root balls are wet. Increase the humidity and lower the air temperature by misting the plant and the area surrounding it, but don’t water the root ball if it’s already wet. Fuchsias in the ground tend to withstand heat much better than those in pots. During a hot spell, place basket fuchsias on the ground; you’ll be amazed at how they’ll have perked up the following morning. If hot weather is prolonged, however, consider cutting them back by about a third so that they’ll bloom later.

The two principal pests that afflict fuchsias are whiteflies and spider mites. If you have just one or two fuchsias and they are tended and well located, you may have no pest or disease problems. Most of us, though, are forced to use an insecticide soap or a combination insecticide-fungicide spray (such as Orthenex) to control those pests and rust.

Pruning: The hardest task for new fuchsia owners is pruning. Knowing neither when nor how to prune, some neglect the task entirely, which results in straggly, misshapen plants with diminished flowering.

Although fuchsias will bloom year-round, they are healthiest if forced into a short dormancy period. Between November and January, prune your fuchsia severely. In colder areas, don’t prune until after the last frost. For upright fuchsias, leave two to three feet of trunk, depending on the variety and the desired effect. Cut the branches of trailing fuchsias back to the basket edges, and remove all spindly growth, keeping major stems. Then you can place the plants out of sight until new growth starts. Reduce watering during dormancy, but don’t let pots dry out completely. In December or January, some gardeners take fuchsias from their containers and trim off about a third of the roots. Then they add fresh soil to replace about half that in the container and water sparingly until growth resumes.