Living at the end of Brookhurst Street in Huntington Beach, a mile from the ocean, fuchsias were my first big plant passion. By the time I was in my mid teens I had already tried my hand at an assortment of botanical treasures, but it was fuchsias that I first obsessed over.
Thirty years later I recall clearly the fascination of their flowers, my trips with my father to San Diego and Santa Cruz to obtain the newest and best hybrids. Building a shade house in our backyard, complete with plant benches, propagation tables and automatic irrigation only perpetuated my addiction. I could hardly wait for the next Fuchsia Society meeting, where a new variety or two might appear on the exchange table. Wow!
Much of any gardening success is in understanding climate; matching the climate of a garden with the plants that are placed within it. The coastal climate of Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa and Newport is as good as it gets for growing fuchsias. Although a struggle for lilacs and oriental poppies, this is fuchsia Shangri-la.
Most of us begin our fuchsia experience in April, May or June when we visit a nursery. We succumb to a big, lush basket, full of buds and bloom. They’re almost too hard to resist.
When we get home, be sure to locate the basket in a protected area. An area not too sunny and not too windy. Fuchsias love bright light, but not much afternoon sun, such as under a patio overhang or in the dappled light of large trees.
Watering is next. On cool spring days, it’s rather straightforward, every two or three days as the soil dries a bit. But as the weather turns warm your fuchsia basket may need a thorough drink morning. In hot weather it is important to water early in the day, before the temperatures rise or afternoon breezes begin.
If, on a particularly warm afternoon day, you discover your prize plant wilted, do not water it – really. Just splash off the foliage and the surrounding area. An hour later the plant will be fully recovered. When it cools off in the evening or the next morning you can drench the soil again. Saturating the soil of a fuchsia with water on a hot afternoon day encourages root diseases. All the plant really needed was just a quick, cool shower, not a long, soaking bath.
Fuchsias in containers are gluttons for fertilizer. Frequent light doses are the key. Fertilizing with a balanced liquid fertilizer at least every two weeks during the bloom season will maintain an abundance of blooms and nice foliage.
Regardless of my advice so far, in coastal Orange County the fuchsia year really starts about Thanksgiving. This is when many beginners make a big mistake. Fuchsias need to be cut back at this time of the year, and rather drastically. The big blousy spring fuchsia basket is now a bit raggedy looking and dangling two feet over the side of the container. In spite of your reluctance, trim it now to near the edge of the basket. This is a critical step, don’t avoid it.
Like a rose bush in January, you will be cutting off most of the plant. Without this annual haircut your plant will be woody, gangly and sparsely flowering the following year.
After the annual pruning, begin feeding the plant with a high nitrogen fertilizer. Liquid, organic fish emulsion is still a favorite of fuchsia experts. Give it a dose every week or two until about March.
During the late fall and winter months, as long as you are fertilizing, your fuchsia will quickly grow healthy new foliage. Now comes the other critical step; one that will transform an ordinary plant into an extraordinary plant. Every two or three weeks, from December through early March, pinch off a half-inch of the tip of every new leafy stem. Below each pinch, instead of one tip the plant will produce two tips. Another pinch a couple of weeks later and you are up to four tips. Four becomes eight and eight becomes sixteen.
Fuchsias only bloom on the tips of their new growth. The more tips the better. With diligent pinching and fertilizing, by March you will have a full, bushy plant ready to set hundreds of blooms. During the rest of spring and summer stop pinching and switch fertilizers to one that promotes flowering, like Dr. Earth liquid. Enjoy the show.
You’re now a fuchsia expert. Careful, they’re addictive.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar