Fuchsia perfect: A few years ago, if you'd have asked Anna Pavord what she thought of fuchsias, she would have given you short shrift. Nowadays though, she admires their hardiness and ability to charm in late summer

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The Independent Online

"I don't like principles," wrote Oscar Wilde. "I prefer prejudices." I don't actually prefer them (though it's often entertaining to be a devil's advocate), but can't pretend to be without them. Take busy lizzies. Well, there's the point. I never did take them. I've spent a whole life 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 in the yard. 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.

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

You need, though, to choose the right type for the job in hand: dwarf and compact, or tall and arching? Bushy or spreading? Pale and wistful or dark and daring? Fuchsias can do all those things. 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, blowsy 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 they pull the branches right down to the ground. And they brown off badly in rain. f

Much more successful in a container is 'Coachman', although it is made in the salmony shades that I thought I didn't like. 'Swingtime' was raised in the 1950s. '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, 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 footrest. '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.

'Coachman' is listed in The Plant Finder as a totally hardy fuchsia (H4), 'Swingtime' as hardy in some places, but not in others (H3). Hardiness, though, is a tricky thing to measure. One of the main aims of the Royal Horticultural Society's last fuchsia trial was to draw a clear line between the types that could stand a winter outside and those that couldn't. For three years, different experts in different places made notes on 165 varieties. All of them were generally considered hardy. It included old favourites such as Fuchsia magellanica 'Thompsonii', a wonderfully elegant early-flowering fuchsia introduced in 1840 and red and white 'Conspicua' raised by George Smith in 1863.

Unfortunately though, at the end of the three years, there was no agreement among the judges that any of the fuchsias in the trial were fully, dependably hardy. Some stood up for 'Baby Blue Eyes' in its violet-blue skirt. Others disagreed. Some said they could vouch for 'Corallina', a robust scarlet and purple fuchsia raised by the Exeter nurseryman, Robert Pince, in 1844. Others couldn't. So in the most recent Awards of Garden Merit given to fuchsias, the RHS is hedging its bets and rating them all H3-4.

As a result of this last trial 11 more fuchsias were added to the AGM list. As well as assessing hardiness, judges looked at habit, impact (which included the ratio of flower to leaf), vigour and length of flowering time. I like fuchsias that sit well in pots; for that you need a plant of medium height and a spreading habit. Award-winning 'Corallina' would fit the bill. So would 'Bernisser Hardy', a Dutch variety with small dark flowers smothering the narrow, glossy foliage. Both are available from Kathleen Muncaster Fuchsias in Lincolnshire or Silver Dale Nurseries in Devon.

I also like wild-looking fuchsias, the kind you see growing in hedges in southwest Ireland, tall, light-limbed and easy going. The one called Fuchsia magellanica 'Tricolor' is a terrific garden plant with small leaves of soft greenish-grey, tinged with pink and edged in creamy-white. It makes a good backdrop for blue agapanthus. The Plant Finder lists 'Tricolor' separately from Fuchsia magellanica 'Versicolor' but the AGM judges thought that in the trial, they appeared identical.

Whatever the name, the bush will try to revert back to its plain green beginnings. Cut out these growths quickly. Because the green leaves have more chlorophyll in them than the variegated ones, they grow more vigorously and before you know it, the whole bush has turned.

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 fill the pot, move the plant into a larger one. When the main stem is about two-and-a-half feet 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 encourages yet more subsidiary shoots. When the head is well developed, strip all remaining leaves from the supporting trunk. Then think of somewhere to keep it in winter.

Kathleen Muncaster Fuchsias, 18 Field Lane, Morton, Gainsborough, Lincs. Tel: 01427 612329, e-mail: jim@smuncaster.freeserve.co.uk, website: kathleenmuncasterfuchsias.co.uk. Usually open Thurs-Tues (10am-6pm) but phone first to check. Send 2 x 1st class stamps for catalogue. Silver Dale Nurseries, Shute Lane, Combe Martin, Devon. Tel: 01271 882539, e-mail: silverdale.nurseries @virgin.net. Open daily (10am-5pm) until end Oct. Send 4 x 1st class stamps for catalogue. Both Kathleen Muncaster and Roger Gilbert at Silver Dale have National Collections of hardy fuchsias, on view when you visit their nurseries