Fuchsias for another year

It's only the first week of October and tweets from all over arrive in seemingly rapid escalation. Freezes tonight from Missouri to Chicago. Frosts expected already in Maryland. From Western Washington to Norfolk, England and Northern Ireland, gardeners panic to bring tender plants under cover. As fall and cold weather inexorably descend lower and lower over the Northern Hemisphere, the scattered twitter of frost soon becomes a flurry. In the shelter of the City, I'm lucky. I've probably got several weeks left and usually don't get a first frost in my garden until the middle of November. Or well beyond in some kind years. But it's still time to face the inevitable and think about what to do with the summer pots and planters. Annuals are tossed onto the compost heap, of course. But what about those fuchsias that performed so admirably over the summer? Many are still looking picture perfect, still even blooming their foolish heads off. What about those fuchsias? Aren't they from the tropics? Won't they need a greenhouse? It seems such a waste not to save them for next year. Well... It is a waste!

Most potted fuchsias are easily overwintered. No need to keep them active and growing in a greenhouse even. They can simply be stored away dormant for the duration of the coldest months. Which is good. They won't stay looking their best in the weak light of winter, anyway, and they'll appreciate the down time. However, since fuchsias don't actually go into true dormancy in the same way most temperate plants do, it's helpful to be aware of a few things when storing them away. The basic idea is to make them think they are truly dormant by inducing a sort of semi-dormant state that slows their active growth down to a bare minimum until spring. And the key to doing that is cool temperatures and reduced watering.

The first thing is to find a spot that stays as cool as possible without ever frosting or (shudder, shudder) freezing. Dormant fuchsias don't need to be put up in a greenhouse or housed on a sunny enclosed porch. In fact, they don't even need any light at all when dormant. Just a suitably cool spot to rest until spring. Under the greenhouse bench. An out-of-the-way window. In a shed. Under the stairs. A cool closet. Lots of places work. Ideally, though, the temperature in whatever space you use should be about 35-45° F (about 2-7° C). While a number of fuchsias are hardier than you might think, and the tops can actually take a couple of degrees of frost or so when growing in the ground, the roots of a potted fuchsia are exposed and vulnerable to damage. Warmer works, too, but you have to monitor watering more carefully the warmer they are stored. I live in a city apartment. I have no greenhouse, or even a shed, and keep my overwintering fuchsias in a window and on a rack by the garden door. I can’t match the ideal either yet mine still do fine. Remember: As cool as possible but frost free.

Second, keep the soil on the dry side. Not bone dry ever—they aren't cactuses after all—but a lot less moist than when they're in active summer growth. Check on the plants periodically. If the temperatures are warmer, more watering is needed. If colder, less. The leaves will probably all fall. Don’t be worried. That’s normal and expected. Just clean them up to keep any bugs and disease at bay. You can tell if you're doing a good job by nicking the bark ever so slightly. If there's green underneath, the plant's alive. There will be some die-back in the branches but that's normal, too. It's the heart of the shrub that’s most important.

That brings up the third important thing. Don't cut back any branches until spring. Cutting back branches in the fall causes the plants to put out fresh shoots at precisely the time you want their growth to really slow down to a crawl. Wait until spring. By that time the plants will be looking quite straggly and pathetic anyway so they'll certainly need the trim. And don't be afraid to be severe about it. Fuchsias send out new shoots even from old wood and you'll want to develop a full plant from the base, not from the ends of long branches. Spring's also the time to lift plants from pots and shake off a bit of that old worn-out compost. Cut back the tops, refresh the compost and those fuchsias will be raring to go for another year.