How & When I Prune My Bougainvillea After A Freeze

I’ve been growing and caring for bougainvilleas for many years but never ever had this happened.  There’s a first time for everything, as we’ve learned as time goes on. It never dipped too much below 35 degrees F when I lived in Santa Barbara but now I’ve moved to Tucson which is a whole new horticultural ball game. This past December we had a 29-degree night here in the Sonoran Desert so I now get to write about how and when I prune bougainvillea after a freeze.

The freeze damage to mine was light. A prolonged, hard freeze is a whole different story. I experienced that 1 winter when I worked at a nursery in Berkeley, CA and there were many lamenting stories about bougainvilleas biting the dust. Some eventually recovered and some didn’t. Whether it’s a hard or light freeze, it’s best to wait a bit and access what plan of action you’re going to take.

Note: The following year my bougainvilleas got hit by 2 hard freezes. Read about it & see what I did:

Bougainvillea After A Hard Freeze, Part 1.

Bougainvillea After A Hard Freeze, Part 2.

Pruning my bougainvillea:

My Bougainvillea “Barbara Karst”, which grows by the driveway and is more exposed, got hit the hardest. My other 3 bougies are flush against the house and a bit protected by the pink grapefruit tree. Their foliage got damaged but it all falls off as the new growth comes out so 2 months of looking at it didn’t bother me.

Now at the end of March, 2 of them are flowering and the fresh growth is fast emerging. The Barbara Karst is in full bloom right now and I’m loving the riot of color by my kitchen patio.

a bougainvillea branch with red flowers showing damage after a freeze

Bougainvillea can handle an overnight freeze, possibly 2, just fine coming out of it with a little “cosmetic damage”.  Some of the tips of mine (which you can see here) looked dried or burned & I cut them off or back completely. You can see how the new growth is emerging from the inside of the branches where it was more protected.

Materials I use to prune bougainvillea after a freeze:

My Felco #2 pruners. These have been my go to’s for almost 30 years now & I wouldn’t garden without them. Make sure they’re clean & sharp before you start a job like this.

Gloves. As much as I love nature, I have no desire to have dirt under my fingernails!

A ladder. Necessary to cut off those taller branches.

I didn’t use my loppers or pruning saw like I did with my bougainvilleas in Santa Barbara because I wasn’t cutting off any of the thickest branches.

a bougainvillea branch with freeze damage

This is how the branches looked soon after the freeze. When I 1st noticed it, I thought the plant was dehydrated. 

When I prune bougainvillea after a freeze:

I waited until the possibility of any more freeze nights had passed. You don’t want to prune too early and then have that tender new growth get nipped. I waited until the 1st week of March but could have done it in late February. I pruned my bougainvilleas in Santa Barbara earlier (in late January or early February) because the climate is more temperate.

a bougainvillea barbara karst in full bloom grows against a white house

The driveway side after the pruning.

Pruning after a light freeze is basically how I do the winter pruning except for the removal of those damaged end branches. Here is how I prune the plants:

I stand back to look at the whole plant & assess what plan of action to take. I do this 3 or 4 more times as I’m pruning to make sure to get the look I want. Typically, I work in 1 area at a time & move on to the next.

I started on the driveway side in the corner near the garage by pruning a few outer branches so I could work my way in. I then take out branches which cross, those that are weak or awkward & anything dead.

Good to know: take out whole branches back to the main branch or smaller branches where they connect to the branch they’re growing off of. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a very dense plant.

Working my way into the innermost section of the plant, I removed all the weak, spindly growth. This will never grow strong because of a lack of light.

I pruned down the tallest branches by at least a foot because I don’t want this bougainvillea to get too tall.

The freeze damage was all on the outer, upper branches. I cut that out completely or partially, depending on how & if it was growing back. New growth was appearing on most of the frozen branches; if only at the base.

Good to know: I prune neighboring branches with new growth facing up on 1 & facing out or down on the next. This way all the new branches don’t fill in the same way & the plant doesn’t become a big blob.

I tip the outer branches to the length I want them.

Good to know: bougainvillea blooms on new growth so this pruning brings on more color.

a bougainvillea barbara karst with red flowers in fill bloom

The patio side after the pruning. Indeed a nice sight from the kitchen & patio table!

I like this bougainvillea to have a somewhat airy look because I don’t need it as a privacy block. It always starts to fill in a bit as it grows so another pruning is in order. I prune this after a big bloom (usually 3 times a year), do occasional tippings and this big haircut to set the shape for the year. Bougainvilleas = pruning but the show of color is so worth it!

Happy gardening,

Signed by Nell Foster


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