How to get the best out of Mrs Lovell Swisher

plants for tubs and windowboxes

When I first arrived to work in London, a hick from the country, I used to climb on buses and ride them just to see where they went. I felt like an explorer in a foreign land. Because I had been hired as a copywriter in a glitzy ad agency (I left after a year), I dared not admit to riding buses. So uncool. But I still love them and the opportunity they give, from the top deck, to peer into other people's lives. And their pots and windowboxes.

Pubs usually have the best windowboxes. Perhaps it's the beer dregs that make the plants flourish so. Or all the hot air produced by the regulars. Lobelias are the most common ingredient in most of the plantings: dark- leaved, dark-flowered lobelias with white petunias, pale blue lobelias with deep red geraniums and silver fern. Hackneyed, you might sneer, but the blend produces flower power second to none.

Combined with fuchsias, the same ingredients are equally good in pots. 'Mission Bells' is a hardy fuchsia that has done well for me. The growth is upright and bushy, it is strong growing and easy to propagate and the single flowers are scarlet and rich purple. 'Brutus' has the same good qualities, but the flowers are a brighter red.

'Checkerboard' I've now lost, but grew for several seasons in a pot, underplanted with pale diascias and trailing blue lobelias. The growth of this fuchsia is markedly upright, which is an advantage in a pot, as you can plant other things right up to its main stem. It makes a good standard, but if you have a standard fuchsia in a pot, it needs to be in a sheltered position. Its top-heaviness can be dangerous in a gale.

If you use a heavy loam-based compost in your pot, you offset this problem. The pot itself becomes more stable. I much prefer loam-based composts; they seem more nourishing than the light no-soil types. This was borne out by the recent tests of container composts carried out by Gardening from Which. Gem's John Innes compost for potting was their best buy. They didn't take into account the effect on the back of carrying a soil-based compost home though. It is very much heavier than soil- free types.

'Mission Bells', 'Mrs Lovell Swisher' with delicate pink flowers, and the salmon-pink 'Beauty of Exeter', raised in 1890, make equally good standards. The best time to start training one is the end of summer. If you start in spring, you have to spend a great deal of time nipping out flower buds to persuade the plant to concentrate on leaf and stem growth.

Fuchsias tailor their ways of growing and flowering according to the length of the day. When days are short, that is in autumn and spring, they make vegetative growth. When the days get longer and the fuchsias can depend on at least 12 hours of daylight, they start getting their flower buds into action. If you take cuttings to train as standards in August, you will be working with, rather than against, the plant's natural instincts.

When the cutting is rooted, take care of the tip. That is all important, for you want it to grow as fast as possible. Pinch out sideshoots so that all the fuchsia's energy is concentrated in the lead shoot. Pot on as soon as the roots get to the edge of the current pot, so that the fuchsia is never gasping for food or drink. Give it a weekly feed.

By the end of May, you will be able to set the plant out, by this time in a reasonably sized pot (24-30cm for a full-sized standard). When the stem is tall enough, pinch out the top and let the head develop. By pinching out these shoots in turn, you make a fine bushy head of growth on the stem.

Scented leaved geraniums and fuchsias in pots are old faithfuls because gardeners know they will cheerfully adapt to life in reduced circumstances. So will the trailing surfinia petunia, a newer arrival on the scene. I'm growing a slightly different one this year called 'Million Bells'. Normally petunias would be planted out by now, but the weather has been so uncertain - frosts at night and a chill east wind blowing - that mine are still crowding the windowsills inside. The brilliant magenta and the trailing habit of the surfinia petunias is a good match for many fuchsias in pots.

Blue daisy flowered felicias also look well with fuchsias such as 'Mrs Lovell Swisher'. The variegated felicia is showier than the standard green- leaved kind, but I have not found it as free-flowering. If you want scent too, add one or two plants of deep purple heliotrope. This is one plant that it is best to buy in flower. Then you can be sure you have a heliotrope with the genuine swoony vanilla scent. Not all have it.

The right proportion between size of pot and the plant in it is vital. A top heavy fuchsia in a small pot looks and feels uncomfortable. As a rough guide, plants when fully grown should be about one and a half times the height of the container. Balance, that is checking that one plant does not swamp all the others, is important, too. Helichrysum sometimes needs watching in this respect. The fine-leaved Helichrysum microphylla is easier to manage than the big-leaved ones. Both the gold and the lime- coloured helichrysums are excellent in shade, better there than in sun, where the foliage tends to burn.

The finely divided grey leaves of Senecio viravira, as graceful as a fern, is another useful prop in pots. Leafy bulk is what makes pots (and windowboxes) look luxuriant. The flowers then have something to display themselves against, like jewels on velvet. This senecio looks excellent with tender lush-leaved fuchsias such as 'Thalia' or 'Gartenmeister Bonstedt'.

The yellow daisy-flowered Bidens ferulifolia, has even more finely-cut foliage, though it is grown more for its flowers than its leaves. Few annuals have decent foliage and bidens is valuable because it is bulky without being bossy. I first saw it at Powis Castle, where it was mixed in pots with the double-flowered nasturtium 'Hermine Gnasshof'. It is equally good with flaming red geraniums, but you need to pick the colour of the geraniums carefully. It would scream at pink-toned flowers, as the pink cherry 'Kanzan' does at forsythia.

The bulk provided by the steel-grey foliage of argyranthemums such as 'Chelsea Girl' makes this another top-notch pot plant. And, of course, it is generous with flowers, too - a non-stop succession of white daisies - until the whole show is brought to a shuddering halt by frost. Bidens would mix well with the argyranthemum, complemented perhaps by brachycome (Swan River daisy) or felicia. That would give you a cool scheme. Arctotis (African daisies) would provide something warmer.

For more planting ideas for tubs and window boxes read The Ultimate Container Garden by David Joyce (Frances Lincoln, pounds 20)

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