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Pruning Bougainvillea: Getting This Flowering Machine to Bloom

Getting my Bougainvillea to bloom by pruning was a long but worth it adventure. I show you how you can do it too.

Bougainvillea love in full force here! I’ve recently moved into a new home in the desert where 4 of them grace the garden. I had 2 very floriferous and artistically pruned bougainvilleas in my old garden by the sea which you can see here. This is all about how I pruning bougainvillea and trimming my newly inherited “Barbara Karst” to get those fabulous blooms.

This bougainvillea grows in between my driveway and kitchen patio. Plainly put, it gets a lot of viewing time. It had been pruned and chopped by the previous owner into a rectangular “hedge-blob”. The blob was only showing a wee bit of color at the very ends which had been spared the wrath of the electric hedge pruners.

Bougainvilleas flower as a result of new growth so occasional pruning (not constant hacking) brings on the blooms.

You see a lot of color on large, unpruned bougainvilleas most of which is at the ends of the branches – that’s where the new growth is. By routinely hedge pruning a bougainvillea, you’ll get no or very little flowering. So many other plants make better and easier to maintain hedges. And why have a bougainvillea if you don’t get any color?

Getting Bougainvillea Bloom

This is how my bougainvillea looked before – closely cropped with just a bit of color at the ends.

Getting Bougainvillea Bloom

You can see all the color up high.

Pruning Bougainvillea to Encourage Flowering

* Start at the outside & work my way in. It’s a bit confusing at 1st but gets less so the pruning goes on. Thin out the plant by removing whole branches right back to the main trunk &/or a main branch.  It may seem like you’re removing a lot, but believe me, bougainvillea grows back like crazy.

Remove branches which cross over or are dead.

Then, remove the undergrowth  which has gotten shaded & “wimpy”.

From here, I shape the plant to how I want it to look.  I don’t need it for privacy so an ethereal, airy look is what I’m going for. I continue to remove whole branches.

After I get the overall desired look, I take back the branches that remain by a half or tip prune them, depending on their length.  Tip pruning, in case you don’t know, is the removal of the soft new growth by 1-6″.  You can even do this with your fingernails if it’s easier. This really stimulates that new growth.

I did this pruning over 3 consecutive Saturdays because I only have 1 green waste barrel. This gave me the chance to step away from the bougainvillea and come back and look at it with fresh eyes. I like to handle a bigger pruning project this way – gives me perspective!

Getting Bougainvillea Bloom

This is “Barbara Karst” 2 months later. Not a color explosion like my Bougainvillea glabra in Santa Barbara (pictured below) but it’s showing much more color than when I 1st moved in. It’ll be even more colorful next year!

Getting Bougainvillea Bloom

My blooming machine.

Don’t Forget the Following Steps Before Pruning Bougainvillea

Your pruners are clean & sharp.  For this job, I’ll use my Felco #2’s, Fiskar Floral Nips & my Corona Long Reach Loppers.

Cut out whole branches (except for the pinching on the ends). Bougainvillea puts out a lot of side growth when pruned so you’ll eventually end up with a dense plant (unless of course that’s what you want!).

And watch those thorns – bougainvilleas have a lot of them. Enough said about that!

Be mindful of your eyes. Besides the thorns, a lot of dirt & “dregs” will most likely fall out when you’re pruning.

Getting Bougainvillea Bloom

The new growth appears at the end of the branches.  The leaves of new growth change color (these are called bracts) & this is what makes the impact. The tiny, white flowers appear deep inside those bracts.

For a riot of color 9 months out of the year you can’t beat bougainvilleas!

Bougainvilleas are vigorous growers once they get established and must be controlled from taking over your world. I’ll give mine a light pruning in December once this flowering is complete. I do the main pruning to set the shape in late January/early February. A few prunings to shape throughout the year will keep my Bougainvillea “Barbara Karst” in that airy yet colorful look I love.

Happy gardening,

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  1. Michael Holland

    My Bougainvillea? is in a giant pot and I brought it in for winter last year because it gets cold here in Tulsa Oklahoma it started relief in the spare bedroom. Of course all of the leaves fell off. Spring it began growing and then all the sudden it all died and I brought it outside and now just one shoot up the middle it’s barely growing what can I do to get this bougainvillea to grow? It was real pretty last year but this year its not growing very much.

  2. Hi Michael – Bougainvillea is tricky to grow indoors. Now back outdoors, give it as much sun (at least 6 hours/day) & heat as possible, top dress with compost & water infrequently (as needed in your area) but deeply. Here’s a post I just did: Nell

  3. Hi Nell

    I have Bougainvilleas in large pots on paving next to my driveway. I have noticed that the routs are growing out underneath the pots. Will this damage my paving?? I do not want to loose them. The plants are about two years old and beautiful. Please help. I stay in KZN South Africa.



  4. Hi Elize – I had large bougainvilleas growing against my house in Santa Barbara & smaller ones next to my house here in Tucson. There has never been any damage to the structure or foundation. Nell

  5. Hi Elize, I live in Maine so it is a real treat to see these gorgeous plants. I bought 3 cuttings from a woman in CA and planted them in a pot. Two cuttings died, but one made it. It is outside on my balcony now getting acclimated to the outside. All it is is just 2 long branches, between 2 and 3 feet long. I am hesitant, but should I cut these 2 branches shorter to see if it would branch out? I hate the thought of having to wait a long time to get flowers, though surprisingly it gave me a small cluster of blooms last winter. I was so surprised! So if you can tell me how to make this plant thicken up and have it blom this summer I would be so grateful. Thank you!

  6. Hi Jane – I was born in New England & the climate that bougies thrive in (& flower) is very different. Give it as much sun & heat as you can & don’t let it get consistently rained on. Bougainvilleas flower on new growth so you want to stimulate that growth to bring on the flowering. Because you only have 2 branches, I’d start by pinching them back by 4-6 inches & see how they respond to that. Branching should occur & flowering after that. Hopefully your summer will be warm & sunny! Nell

  7. I recently trimmed back a flowering and healthy bougainvillea that was arching down to the ground. I took the bottom 3 ft off to the dismay of my wife who was wanting me to tunnel the bougainvillea instead of having a canopy effect. How long in the Southern California sun before i can expect to get that bottom 3 ft back.


  8. Hi John – I’m not understanding. You took it down to 3′ from the ground or did you take off 3′ of the arching part? Anyway, bougainvillea grows fast at this time of year so either way you’ll see some growth. Nell

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