IN GOOD THYME Prepare tender fuchsias for winter weather

During last week’s windstorm, the heavy, antique wrought iron planter on the front porch blew over, hurling the potted fuchsias into the tempest. When I found them, they’d been thrown clear out of out of their pots; foliage and flowers lay in green and pink tatters on the garden path.

They had looked so lovely on the porch, a spot of summery color in late October. Well, I thought, as I picked up the pieces, I guess I’ll be pruning fuchsias in autumn rather than spring this year. There’s some controversy among fuchsia fanciers whether to prune in spring or fall. I’ve done both, with no problems. But because fall is such a busy time in the garden, let’s procrastinate.

In this column, we’re discussing “tender” fuchsias, usually grown in pots or baskets, as opposed to the “hardy” fuchsias that remain planted in our Northwest gardens year round. Deciduous, woody, semi-hardy shrubs native to South America, fuchsias are beloved for their delicate, pendulous flowers, some as dainty as music-box ballerinas, others as full and flirty as can-can dancers’ skirts. They come in a variety of colors and combinations of colors: vibrant red, pink, purple, white, and, well, fuchsia.

There are steps you should take to prepare your tender fuchsias for the long, cold winter. First of all, if you haven’t already stopped fertilizing, quit now! You don’t want to do anything to promote growth. Don’t pinch, prune or pot. Give them less water than you did during the summer. Allow their leaves to yellow naturally and drop, and the flowers to set seed by forming those little purple-black berries. Leave them out a few weeks longer. Most tender fuchsias actually benefit from experiencing a light frost. Remember, I said light.

Leafless, flowerless fuchsia plants are not attractive, so find a place to store them for the winter where you won’t have to look at them, yet where they’ll be protected from cold and wind. The top of the plant may look dead, but there’s plenty of life in the roots. A dim garage, shed or cellar where temperatures are cool but never freezing is ideal. You can also house overwintering fuchsias in a crawl space, under a deck, or any cool, dark, dry place where air circulates well.

Before you put them to bed, remove any leaves that haven’t fallen off on their own. Don’t prune, other than to size the plant down to fit into storage. Pruning cuts invite fungus to spend the winter. Remove any insect-hiding leaf litter from the surface of the pot.

Keep the soil moist, but not drenched. About a cup of water per month should work, depending on the draining quality of the potting soil. Don’t let the soil dry completely, or you may lose your plant. Remember to check on them every so often.

Tender fuchsias should remain dormant for about three months. When you see signs of new growth, prune them back to about six to eight inches and move to another sheltered spot where they can obtain light. By late March or early April, weather permitting, you can begin moving them outdoors into a sheltered area. Be sure to get them back in the shed or garage if freezing temperatures are predicted. As the days lengthen, you can gradually resume normal watering and fertilization.

If you plan to overwinter fuchsias in a greenhouse, ignore all of the above; you have special rules. First of all, to avoid whitefly infestation, sterilize every inch of the greenhouse with strong bleach or disinfectant before introducing plants. When you bring them in, remove all the fuchsia’s leaves, as well as leaf residue from the soil surface. Prune your plants now, and place them so that they don’t touch each other. Again, as the days get longer, increase the amount of water and introduce fertilizer gradually.

Some Whidbey gardeners take a different approach. They bury the pot to its rim in the garden, then mound mulch such as bark or wood chips over the entire plant. The fuchsia often freezes to the ground. If it does, cut it back to soil level in spring, and if all goes well, it will resprout. If it doesn’t freeze, when all danger of frost has passed (usually mid May), simply cut last year’s branches back to live wood. Repot with fresh soil or add some to the old pot.

Remember, if you’re having plant problems, Island County- WSU volunteer Master Gardeners are here to help. Call 679-7327. A Master Gardener will return your call to discuss the issue and make a house call if necessary.

Garden questions or comments? Call 675-6611 or e-mail Mariana Graham is a WSU certified Master Gardener and member of Garden Writers Association of America.

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