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Secrets of growing fuchsia flowers

Fuchsias work well in hanging baskets with their beautiful delicate exotic flowers. The dangling habit and teardrop shape of the flowers gave rise to the popular name "ladies' eardrop." Fuchsias are low-growing bushes or sometimes tree-like plants. Most fuchsias are native to South America, where they grow in the understory of tropical and subtropical forests. The fuchsia tree which grows in New Zealand can reach 15 meters in height. Fuchsias are named after Leonhard Fuchs, a German doctor who lived in the early 1500s. There were originally nearly 100 varieties of fuchsias. But they are now so hybridized that there are countless varieties.

Fuchsias are prolific bloomers and with proper care will bloom all summer long and can also grow indoors. Fuchsias need to be deadheaded to encourage more blossoms. They are most beautiful when kept in rather cool conditions in half shade. Too much warmth and sunshine leads to rapid flower loss and severe evaporation from the leaves and stems. Fuchsias should be watered in the morning, frequently enough to keep the soil moist but not soaked. In hot weather, they need to be watered everyday, while in cooler weather twice a week will suffice. To decide whether to water your plant, look and feel the soil. If the soil is quite wet right to the surface, the plant does not need more water. If the topmost layer has started to dry, they need water. Fuchsias are more often killed by overwatering than by underwatering. If they are too wet their roots will rot.

Fuchsias have a tendency to wilt on hot afternoons. They will perk up if misted with water or moved into the shade. Avoid watering in the late afternoon or evening, because fuchsias have stomata (pores) in their leaves which close in the evening and prevent them from shedding excess water.

Fuchsias are known as "gross feeders" and need access to plenty of fertilizer. When the plants are flowering, especially in late summer and fall, use a water-soluble fertilizer that is high in potash "K". Apply full-strength every 1 to 2 weeks or one-quarter strength with every watering.

If you keep a fuchsia overwinter, start to fertilize it in the spring when it is really putting on growth with a fertilizer high in nitrogen "N". In late spring and summer switch to a balanced fertilizer (such as NPK 10-10-10).

Fuchsias only develop flowers on new growth. This means that you need to encourage a nice distribution of new growth each spring in order to have a concentrated show of flowers. You can over winter a fuchsia, but know that even a single light frost will kill some types of fuchsia. In late autumn, as temperatures cool and growth slows down, fuchsias should be cut back to 4 to 8 inches above the soil level. These remaining stems will form the skeleton of next year's growth. Without this pruning, the plants become long-stemmed over time, with flowers only showing on the newer, outside growth.

Since fuchsias are tropical plants and so sensitive to freezing temperatures, the plant must be kept above 32 degrees all winter. When the temperatures drop below 40 to 45 degrees, the plant will likely lose its leaves and go dormant. When plants are defoliated, they can be lightly watered and placed under a table, covered in peat, or wrapped in bubble wrap or newspaper for the winter. They will need to be checked and watered occasionally. If the plants dehydrate, they will die. In the spring, when all chance of frost is passed, the plants can be brought out and into a shady spot, then watered. When new growth appears, begin applying fertilizer high in nitrogen "N."

In the spring, as the fertilized fuchsias begin growing vigorously again, for the best show of flowers, they will need some pruning. When the stems have at least three pairs of leaves, you can "stop" the plant to encourage a bushy shape with more branches and as a result, more flowers. Simply remove the growing tip from the stems after they have acquired several pairs of leaves. Do not remove the growing tip before this point, as new branches will only form at the junctions between leaves and stems. Care should also be taken not to damage these critical areas (the leaf axils). You can stop the plant again after the new branches have several pairs of leaves. The more stops you put in, the more flowers you will have.

Fuchsias are easy to care for if you: keep them moist but not wet, give them plenty of fertilizer, prune them in autumn to encourage new growth, and do not let them freeze or become dried out over winter.

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.