How to Prune an Overgrown Bougainvillea

Here I go again, yet another adventure in bougainvillea pruning coming down the pike. I had 2 large bougainvilleas in Santa Barbara and now have 4 smaller ones in my new garden in Tucson.

What I believe is Bougainvillea “Rainbow Gold” grows right near my front door and I’m not sure when it was last pruned. It’s a rangy vine greatly in need of a hard pruning and training.

Time to spring into action so this overgrown bougainvillea doesn’t eat me alive every time I leave the house!

Here’s the bottom line with bougainvilleas: they bloom on growth so more pruning and pinching = more flowering.

backyard garden

This gives you an idea of what my bougainvillea (on the left in front of the chimney) looked like when I moved into the house. There was very little flowering action taking place & it was growing above the roof & into the walkway.

The hard pruning that I do in late January or into February is the big one that sets the shape this plant will be for the rest of the year.  Bougainvilleas need it as they’re vigorous growers. I do the pruning when the evenings start to warm a bit – you don’t want to do it if there’s any danger of below freezing temperatures (especially for a period of more than 3 nights) on the horizon.

You’ll see how I pruned & trained it:

What I wanted to accomplish:

– To keep the bougainvillea below the roof line & out of the eaves & walkway.

– Prune any branches away from the window. This is an east exposure & I want as much light as possible to enter the living room.

– Have a healthier plant. The foliage has always looked a bit pale & shall we say, “blah”. Hopefully between this pruning & composting it’ll come back strong.

– And most importantly, bring on lots of flowering. Why in the world have a bougainvillea if you can’t get any color!

bougainvillea growing up side of wall

Even though this bougainvillea was in the process of going deciduous at the time this pic was taken, the foliage had never looked all that great.

The pruning & training bougainvillea process:

I start by standing back to really look at the bougainvillea.

I figure out what I shape I want it to be & what I need to do. Every time I move the ladder I also step back to make sure all’s going well. It’s hard to get a perspective when your nose is in the plant!

Every time I move the ladder I also step back to make sure all’s going well. It’s hard to get a perspective when your nose is in the plant!

I make sure all my pruners are clean & sharp so I can get the best cuts possible.

I used my trusty & beloved Felco #2’s (they’ve been my go to hand pruner for over 25 years now!) & also Corona Long Reach Loppers.

Working my way into the bougainvillea, I remove a lot of the smaller, scrawnier branches. I prune away whole branches, taking them all the way back to a main branch or the trunk. This will allow the new growth to come back stronger & healthier.

bougainvillea growing up side of wall

A close up of the center of the plant – I pruned out most of those smaller branches as well as the ones that crossed over.

The same goes for a few of the larger branches which cross over or stick out. Away they go.

I pruned all the remaining branches to take them in & stimulate that new growth. I want to bring on that flowering to keep the hummingbirds & butterflies happy too!

Bougainvilleas aren’t clinging vines (unlike pink jasmine, honeysuckle, morning glory, etc).

They need training, support & attachment. I undid all the previously attached branches & retied them. There are 2 branches framing the window which I still need to attach but I’m missing the hardware. That’ll be done within the next couple of weeks.

bougainvillea growing up side of wall

Here’s the finished project which I know, looks like a bunch of sticks. It may seem like I removed a lot, but believe, bougainvilleas grow back like crazy. I spread a 4″ layer of compost around the base of this plant to nourish the soil.

If you’re new to the world of bougainvillea pruning I have a word of warning: they have thorns, some species and varieties fiercer than others. Wear gloves and maybe even long sleeves. Pruning a bougainvillea is a project best not done in a bikini!

I want this inherited and overgrown bougainvillea of mine to be a riot of color come spring. By the way, I’ll be sure to do a post and video in a few months so you can see how it came back.  I’ll do 3 or 4 lighter prunings throughout the warm season, ending in late November.  Tip pruning, which I do when the fancy strike me, is key to that dense show of color. Here in the desert, I want a floral explosion!

Happy gardening & thanks for stopping by,


This was my Bougainvillea glabra in Santa Barbara, a real flowering machine for 9 months out of the year. It grew up & across my garage and got a major “WOW” from anyone who saw it!


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  1. Hi Nell,

    Thank you for the amazing website overflowing with great tips!

    I have a massive bougainvillea at a house I just bought that looks like it hasn’t been pruned in years. Massive thorns await me 🙂 Needless to say I’m watching all your pruning videos.

    Just out of curiosity have you got an updated photo of the bougainvillea you pruned in this video? I’m scared to cut mine back so aggressively, but I have faith in your work.

    La Ciotat, Provence

  2. Hi Soraya – I just gave that bougainvillea the end of season pruning a few weeks ago. I cut it back to about 9′ tall. The days & evenings have really cooled here in Tucson so it’s more in a rest phase now. It flowered well but is not nearly as floriferous as my B. “Barbara Karst”. That one is still in full bloom & has more coming on it! Nell

  3. I purchased a bourganvillia a few months ago. It looked really healthy, then we had a very cold spell and possibly a frost, the leaves dropped and so did the blooms. it is now doing absolutely nothing. The main stem is green inside but the old shoots are like sticks. I have cut some of the old sticks off but I am wondering if it will ever come back to life again.
    I live just outside Malaga Spain.
    What shall I do , consider it dead or wait to see if anything comes of it?

    Regards Petula

  4. Hi Petuala – Older bougainvilleas can tolerate &/or survive a cold spell much better than younger or newly planted ones. Malaga should be pretty warm & sunny now so you should be seeing some growth on it. If the main stem is green it should recover (although not nearly as full) so that call is yours. Here’s a post I did on my bougainvillea & a light freeze: Nell

  5. Hi
    Which Corona loppers ( model #) are good for bougainvillea??


  6. Hi Stacy – Corona makes a number of loppers. In my opinion, any of the ones which have more of a finer, pointed tip. The length & handle material are up to you. I prefer those with lighter handles rather than wooden. My loppers have extendable handles & I really like that feature. Nell

  7. Hi Nell
    Thank you for your helpful info! Our Gardner cut (hack) down our bougainvillea to the base by accident and left about 2 feet. It was originally the height of the roof. He assured me it
    would back again but I’ve lost sleep over whether it’ll recover. Can you give any feedback on whether it would and is so, how long it would take to begin looking good again? Anything I should do to help it along? Thanks!

  8. Hi again
    Forgot to mention I live in Southern California (very hot now) where bougainvilleas are always thriving and everywhere you turn!

  9. Hi Maggie –
    I just saw your comment about So Cal; thank you for that. Some bougainvilleas grow more vigorously & faster than others. You probably have one of the taller varieties because it was at the roof. I trained my bougainvillea up & over my in Santa Barbara which took 2 years. You won’t see much growth until late next winter/early spring. I’d thin it out a bit in the middle so it doesn’t grow back like a blob. Also, amend it this fall which some rich compost. Nell

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