Many Fuchsia cultivars will form strong and enduring shrubs in the garden, flowering from late spring into autumn, or even winter. They bring the opportunity for an abundance of elegant and colourful blooms on cascading branches, which mix effortlessly with other semitropical plants which thrive in our mild climate.
Generally speaking, the single or semi-double sorts look most at home in a garden setting, and these are usually the ones which are most heat tolerant and therefore suitable for growing in Sydney. There are many vigorous, upright growers that will grow into bushy shrubs up to a metre tall, or which can be trained as standards; others have a more trailing habit and can be used as groundcovers or positioned to spill over walls or steps - or grown in a basket hung on a branch of a tree that casts dappled shade. Those with a lax habit can be trained as espaliers or even around wire shapes. There is a truly mind-boggling array of cultivars available at specialist fuchsia nurseries and festivals, in a range of sizes, shapes and every possible colour combination in shades of white, many hues of pink, purple, lavender-blue, violet, coral, salmon-orange, crimson and scarlet.
A position in part shade is probably the safest one to try for many garden Fuchsia, as full sun can lead to burning of flowers and foliage. Fuchsia dislike hot temperatures. Morning sun, with afternoon shade is the ideal exposure. The more sensitive fuchsias which need to be grown under shade-cloth are less useful as general garden subjects. Very dense shade is unsuitable as it results in straggly plants with few flowers. On the whole, those which seem best able to stand sun are those of darker rather than paler coloured flowers and those of single form, rather than the fuller doubles. However, there are many exceptions to this and the best way to find out is to ask other gardeners about their experiences of growing them and, hopefully, even obtain cuttings from plants which are proven to be tough doers in the garden, as these are going to be the most heat-tolerant cultivars. If a particular fuchsia isn't performing well, move it in winter to a sunnier or less sunny spot, or put it in the ground if it is in a pot or in a pot if it is in the ground, to see if it will do better.
Spring and autumn seem to be the best planting times. Generally they do appreciate cool, reasonably moist soil but they do not want to be waterlogged, so good drainage is essential. It is sometimes suggested that the plants be put into the garden bed 2-3 cm lower (in the centre of a basin that is lower than the surrounding soil) than they were in the pot to protect the roots from the extreme heat of our summers. The addition of compost to the planting site will be beneficial for growth. Mulching around the plant will also conserve moisture and keep the roots a little cooler.
Once a young specimen is planted out, it needs a little bit of help to grow into a robust garden shrub. The method is very simple: regular pinching out of the branches as they form. After three sets of leaves have formed on the single stem of the baby plant, the tip - that is, the top two tiny leaves - is simply pinched off using your thumb and index finger. This forces that stem to branch, and these new stems are also pinched back after two sets of leaves have formed on them, and this is process repeated a few more times until a bushy form starts to emerge and a short, stout trunk develops. The leaves on the trunk can then be removed. The trunk should be staked in its early years to support the plant. Standard forms can also be trained, by creating a longer trunk before allowing the top to form. Some cultivars have a more trailing form, with many stems arising from the base, and these can each be staked and also pinched out to some extent. The method of tip pruning seems so simple that it is hard to believe that it can be so effective! It can also be used on other plants to create better looking shrubs. It really only takes a second or two as you are passing by.
When planted in the ground, Fuchsia need watering about twice a week, and this can be done by hand or by use of a drip irrigation system. On very hot days in the middle of summer, they seem to suffer if watered too much: it may be better to water in the days leading up to a predicted heatwave and just spray the plant with a mist in the evenings on such hot days. On extremely hot summer days with hot, dry winds, it is advisable to shade the plants with an old sheet. Fuchsia like to be fed and will appreciate a scattering of general fertiliser when you are doing the rest of the garden as well as being doused regularly with some liquid food, beginning in August. Apply once a fortnight, starting with a nitrogen-rich formula in August and September. In October and November, alternate with a soluble food designed to promote flowering. Through summer and early autumn, apply the flowering formula once a fortnight.
Deadheading of spent flowers will promote good blooming but don't trim back to a pair of new leaves when you do this, as you set back flowering for 6-8 weeks. Fuchsia should be pruned in July in Sydney. Pruning should be fairly hard, trimming the plant by half back to its basic woody structure. It is also a good idea to give them a LIGHT prune in January to remove straggly stems, encourage more flowers in autumn, and help them cope with the stresses of the hot weather, as they may start looking a bit bedraggled at this time. Heavy pruning at this time is not advisable. Warm, humid weather can also encourage rust infection of fuchsia leaves: it's best to remove the affected foliage and if necessary spray with an organic fungicide. Watering over the plant with Seasol during the growing season can help the leaves grow thicker and possibly more resistant to infection. Don't water them heavily on very hot days in summer as this can prove fatal!
New plants can be grown easily from 10cm-long tip cuttings in spring or autumn, or when pruning in July, taken from just below the second node of the stem. Use a well-drained propagating mix for your cuttings. The cuttings need to be kept in a humid environment such as a propagating box or some other enclosed container until roots develop, when they can be potted on.
In the garden, Fuchsia mingle very well with other semitropical plants which thrive with some shade for part of the day and which flower at that same time, such as shrubby or cane Begonia, the many forms of Plectranthus, Justicia species and Hydrangea. Smaller plants such as ferns, Liriope and rhizomatous Begonia can be grown with them to provide a contrast of leaf form.
Many thanks to fuchsia-grower extraordinaire Chris Shale for all her helpful advice to me on this subject!