Country and Garden: Back into the fuchsia

There's no getting away from it - some flowers are just naff. Yet even the blowziest blooms have uses...
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"I don't like principles," wrote Oscar Wilde. "I prefer prejudices." I don't really prefer them (though it's often entertaining to be a devil's advocate) but I can't pretend to be without them. Take busy lizzies. Well, that's the point. I never did take them. I've spent a whole life deliberately avoiding them. I've abused them in print. I've called them naff and worse.

By mistake, a couple of dozen baby busy lizzies were delivered here this spring and I hadn't the heart to throw them away. I couldn't bear the thought of them screaming on the compost heap. So I grew them on the kitchen windowsill until they were big enough to plant in two big terracotta pots beside the back door. They are phenomenal.

They are all the same colour, which helps, and it's an easy colour to live with - deep pink, streaked and gently floured over with white. It's called `Jumbo Mauve', but whoever named it has got a funny idea of mauve. The "jumbo" bit must come from the fact that it grows about a foot tall, but stands upright even against the wild storms we've had recently. Each little plant has thrown up at least a dozen stems and is flowering fit to bust.

Busy lizzies are mostly bred from wild species of impatiens that grow in East Africa and Zanzibar, but `Jumbo Mauve' reminds me of the wild impatiens we saw growing along stream banks in Costa Rica. They were tall, rangy plants, usually flourishing in deep shade.

That is the huge advantage of this tribe. They love shade, which isn't true of many showy annuals, the sort you'd want to use in pots. The area beside our back door fills in between two projecting bits of the house. It is stone-paved, no more than 7ft deep by 14ft wide, and it faces north.

I never meant to garden there, but nobody round here ever uses a front door (except for coffins), so I planted a variegated osmanthus (O heterophyllus `Variegatus') in a half-barrel to soften the stone. Like a magnet, it began to attract other pots, until there are now 22. I'd not counted them before, and am astounded that this number of pots could ever have got there.

The two pots of busy lizzies are in the darkest back corner, grouped round the osmanthus. Remembering their damp homes in Costa Rica, I've been keeping them well-watered. They've won me over by their grace. Too often, we are fed squat, dwarf busy lizzies that have no presence at all. And too often they are sold in mixed colours.

So much depends on the colour. In my new-found enthusiasm for busy lizzies, I swept up some more, labelled `Seashells Yellow'. They are vile. The flowers are indeed yellowish when they first come out, but as they age the colour bleaches to an unpleasant flesh tone, flushed from the centre outwards with a bilious pink. Fortunately they are planted up on the bank, where I don't have to look at them every day. But the fact that impatiens can be hideous is the breeders' fault, not the plants'.

Since my busy lizzie baptism, I've been boldly confronting other prejudices too, and the odd result is the best display we've ever had beside our back door. Well, the children think so, at least, and they are my sternest critics.

From a National Trust plant sale in May came a clutch of begonias, just labelled `Non Stop'. I grow quite a few begonias as house plants, ones with good leaves, such as `Burle Marx' and Begonia manicata. But I've always thought of the outdoor ones as gross - harsh in colour, beefy in growth. I bought these because, though intended for use out of doors, they too had good foliage, were characteristically lop-sided, hairy and healthy-looking, and, like busy lizzies, thrive in shade.

Most `Non Stop' begonias I've seen offered have been in mixed colours. But, again, I was lucky in that these are all the same colour, a softish pink with not too much salmon in it to clash with the busy lizzies. The flowers are like waxy poppies. Two enormous petals curve round in an outer cup, with the rest of the petals bunched up to make a double flower within. At least, the boss flower is a double. Where the stem has more than one bloom, the outriders are single, but in exactly the same colour.

Five of these sit round the outside of a big terracotta pot with a Geranium palmatum as a centre-piece. The original mother plant I was given now seeds everywhere, so I just dug up a seedling and popped it into the pot when I was planting the begonias. It provides a contrast of form and foliage, fountaining up in the middle of the group. By next season it will be too big to use in this way. It will need a pot of its own.

These geraniums make fine pot plants outside. They are evergreen and come early into new growth, so that even in March, its great palmate leaves are there to set off pots of tulips. G maderense is similar, but more tender.

So there were two prejudices blown away, much to my benefit. After that it was easy to set up a pot of pelargoniums with variegated leaves (another thing I thought I didn't like) and add some fuchsias.

I wouldn't exactly admit to a prejudice against fuchsias, because there are many elegant ones and, singlehanded, they can see a garden through the doldrums of August, fresh when so much else is looking tired. But there is something of the boudoir about them that puts me off. I think of lace doilies and fuss.

There again, it is mostly a matter of choosing the right types for the job in hand. Someone gave me `Swingtime', which I planted in a pot on its own among the other pots by the back door. It's a big, blowzy double, shiny, deep pinkish-red on the outside, frilly white in the middle. Its habit is by nature lax, but these flowers are so heavy that they pull the branches right down to the ground. And they brown off badly in rain. Much more successful in a container is `Coachman', though it is made in the salmony shades that I thought I didn't like. `Swingtime' was raised in the Fifties. `Coachman' is older, bred by Frederick Bright, one of the Victorian head gardeners who did so much to feed the 19th-century craze for fuchsias. Bright was born at Weston, near Bath in 1853, but spent most of his working life gardening for the Carslakes and the Friedlanders at Whiteknights Park, near Reading.

`Coachman' has a lax habit, too, but it goes up before it comes down, whereas `Swingtime' looks as though an elephant has absent-mindedly used it as a foot rest. `Coachman' has petals (sepals) of pale salmon, tipped with green. The corolla in the centre is a slightly darker shade, but the two elements are well-matched. It's a fine, elegantly slender flower, and the whole way the plant grows is pleasing.

To make a fuchsia standard, with a ball of growth on top of a single tall stem, you need to use a variety with naturally upright growth. `Checkerboard' would do, or `Snowcap', another 19th-century introduction.

Tie the stem to a cane and train it up, pinching out any side shoots that may develop in the leaf axils on the main stem. Make ties every two inches to clamp the stem to its stake, so no drunken kinks develop.

When roots have filled the pot, move the plant into a larger one. When the main stem is about 2ft 6in tall, pinch out the growing tip to encourage side shoots at the head. Pinch out the growing tips of these when two or three leaves are showing. This will encourage yet more subsidiary shoots.

When the head is well-developed, strip all remaining leaves from the supporting trunk. Then think where to keep it in winter.