Planting Bougainvillea Vines
How to Prune Them

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The inside scoop about planting Bougainvillea vines and pruning them. How to make Bougainvillea trees. The secret to inducing reluctant plants to bloom.

The first consideration, when planting Bougainvillea, is choosing the right variety.

Some are more cold hardy than others.

Some Bougainvillea varieties are more compact growers.

Some are natural shrubs, while others will reach for the tree tops. Pick one that will work with you, not against you. Who needs another battle to fight?

Small bougainvillea with pink flowers growing in a trough. This small plant is growing in a trough at the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Garden in Sanford, Florida.

Before planting Bougainvillea, don heavy gloves. These plants are armed with needle-sharp thorns.

Ladies in hot climates used to plant them under their bedroom windows.

They could sleep with the window open without fear, under the protection of a thousand tiny daggers.

Handle the root ball gently when planting Bougainvillea vines as they don't like having their roots disturbed.

Choose the planting site thoughtfully for the same reason.

Once your Bougainvillea is in the ground, it won't wish to be moved. A site with well drained soil in full sun will be best.

If you are at the outer limit of the plant's hardiness zone, plant it near a wall or in a southern exposure to provide it with extra heat and frost protection.

Getting a Bougainvillea to Bloom

<i>Bougainvillea</i> flowering in a variety of colors.

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The vines are drought tolerant and like to dry between drinks. If they are kept too wet, they may not bloom well. This goes double if you're over wintering them indoors.

The same goes for over feeding. This tends to cause them to produce a lot of leaves and not many flowers. Feed once or twice a year with a bloom boosting fertilizer. You could also use a balanced fertilizer and supplement it with a sprinkling of Triple Super Phosphate.

Some cultivars are shy bloomers while others will flower at the slightest provocation.

A former neighbor of mine had a great passion for these plants. Each summer, his yard was resplendent as a result of several large Bougainvilleas blooming heavily in a variety of colors.

Some were growing up the side of his house and spilling across the roof. Others were used as specimen shrubs in the lawn.

Passers-by regularly stopped to gaze in awe.

I asked him once, "How do you get them all to flower so heavily?"

"Each plant has different blooming habits," he told me. "If I see it and I like it, I plant it. If it doesn't act right, I shovel prune it and plant another variety in its place.

I've got no patience for slackers."

I cannot argue with his methods; they have bought him great success, but not everyone is willing to take such drastic steps.

More recently, another neighbor asked me why her new Bougainvillea plant had not yet come into bloom.

I advised her to sprinkle a bit of super phosphate around the base of the plant and wait a few weeks.

I honestly was not sure it would work.

I had never applied super phosphate to my Bougainvillea as it is nearly always in bloom and does not seem to care what I feed it.

I use SP on my lemon and calamondin trees to get them to repeat bloom and produce several crops per year. I knew it would make fruit trees bloom.

I received a happy phone call from Lela a few weeks later. Her beautiful Bougainvillea had begun to produce the colored bracts for which it is famous!

Planting Bougainvillea Plants in Pots

Twin weeping <i>Bougainvillea</i> trees inhabit pots at Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens. Twin weeping Bougainvillea trees inhabit pots at Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens in Central Florida.

For such large vines, they do tremendously well in containers. Even the largest varieties will flourish in fairly small, though not tiny, pots.

When planting Bougainvillea in pots, remember: the smaller the pot the more often will you need to water it.

Containerized plants should be fed more often than in-ground vines. Sprinkle a slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote on top of the soil every 3 months during warm weather.

Braided trunks of the <i>Bougainvillea</i> trees in the image above. Braided trunk of the tree in the image above.

When planting Bougainvillea vines in containers, avoid placing a small plant in a very large pot. The soil may remain wet for too long after you water it and promote root rot.

It is better to carefully transplant the vine into slightly larger pots as it grows.

Also, it is best not to wait until your Bougainvillea has become root bound before repotting it as this will almost certainly cause root damage.

Pruning Bougainvillea

<i>Bougainvillea</i> pruned as a rounded shrub.

Pruning Bougainvillea as a rounded shrub results in heavier bloom than would shearing it as a hedge.

They should give you hazard pay for doing it.

Remember those heavy gloves you used to plant it in the first place?

You'll be needing those.

That's the bad news.

The good news: Bougainvillea plants can take any amount or type of pruning you are brave enough to dish out.

Trim it to any shape or size you like. The best time to prune is in the spring when you need to remove frost damage anyway, or just after a flush of bloom.

Pink flowered bougainvillea pruned into a low hedge.

If you are planting bougainvillea and want a low shrub, chose a low-growing variety.

The plant in this photo is a tall variety pruned to keep it low.

This removes most of the colorful bracts.

<i>Bougainvillea</i> sheared to keep it low on Coco Kay. Bougainvillea sheared to keep it low on Coco Kay in the Bahamas where these plants are commonly pruned in this fashion.

Pruning actually promotes bloom in Bougainvillea plants as it is only the "leaves" at the tips of the branches that color.

(The part of this plant that we think of as its flowers are really the colored bracts which form around the flowers.)

Whenever you cut a stem, it branches. This makes the plant bushier and produces more stem tips. In a Bougainvillea, more stem tips equals more color.

The problem with shearing is that Bougainvillea vines are not exactly slow growers. The frequent trimming required to keep the plants neat, removes most of the bracts before they can display their beauty.

Training a Bougainvillea to Climb

Bright Pink Bougainvillea, Eze, Provence, France
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This vining shrub has no tendrils with which to grasp a support and its lax stems do not twine. Therefore, you have to tie it to whatever support you wish to encourage it to cover.

To get it to grow snugly against a wall, imbed metal loops into the structure (use a masonry bit to drill holes in concrete or stone). Place a loop every 5 feet or so. You are only using them to keep the main stems against the wall.

Prune the laterals growing off these main stems (a hedge shear works well for this) each spring and remove broken and dead wood.

Bougainvillea on a White House on the Island of Spetse, Greek Islands, Greece, Europe
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Here, the weeping stems have been allowed to drape over the edge of the balcony. This cascading effect is achieved by allowing the laterals at the top of the plant to grow as they please.

Only the lateral stems at the bottom are shortened to keep the vine from growing too wide for this narrow garden.

Turning a Bougainvillea into a Tree

Bougainvillea tree growing at the Maui Tropical Plantation. A Bouganivillea tree growing at the Maui Tropical Plantation.

Train a young plant to standard by selecting the strongest upright shoot and removing all the others at the soil level.

Alternatively, you could select three shoots and braid them together to get a more interesting trunk.

Whichever trunk you do, tie it to a stake to keep it straight.

New shoot s will keep trying to grow from the trunk. Just pinch them off as you notice them.

When the trunk is as tall as you want it to be, pinch the growing tip off.

This will force branching, creating the crown or top of the tree. As these shoots grow, keep pinching them to make the top bushy.

If you are training a shrubby variety, it will have a thick, bushy top--like most trees. If you are training a climber, it will develop a weeping head which can be very pretty.

Eventually, the trunk will become thick and very woody. It will, however, never be strong enough to withstand hurricane force winds. The wood is soft and brittle. Trained to standard, it will be top heavy when wet.

The trunk could snap in a storm.

If you live in a place that is often threatened by hurricanes, try planting Bougainvillea trees in containers. That way, they can be moved under cover. Alternatively, plant in a wind protected spot away from any glass.

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