Although I greatly enjoy being able to grow many frost-sensitive plants such as Bougainvillea and Arizona Yellow Bells (Tecoma stans), I do not particularly like how they look in the winter, once frost has hit our area – zone 9a.  
And so, when hints of spring are in the air….I am itching to get back into the garden to prune them back.  In our area (the Phoenix metro area), this is generally the beginning of March which is usually after the last frost has occurred in our area.
First on my list is the Bougainvillea.  I have three in my back garden. 
 
Not too attractive is it?  You can clearly see where the frost damaged the top growth.  The bottom growth is still green as the top branches protected them from frost damage.
 
Now you would assume that you just cut back all the leafless branches, but DON’T.  Many of the naked branches are still alive.  Look closely at the branch below and you can see that the part of the branch on the left is brown with no hint of green – prune the brown part of the branch off, leaving the green shaded part alone.

You can also look and see tiny leaflets starting to emerge.  This is also a sign to look for when determining what part of the branches to prune.
 
Why not prune earlier to remove the ugly, naked branches you may ask?  Well, the answer is simple….if you prune too early and frost hits your area, it will damage the newly emerging leaves and could easily kill the live tissue inside of the branches, leaving you with a much smaller plant or a dead one.  So, as ugly as it looks in the winter….leave it alone, please?
 

All finished!  Okay, I admit, that it still does not look all that attractive and many may feel compelled to remove all of the naked branches.  But, look closely below….
 
 This is why you do not want to remove all of the naked branches.  This is my Bougainvillea one week after pruning.  Beautiful leaves are beginning to grow out from those formerly naked branches.
**Tips for pruning Bougainvillea…WEAR LONG SLEEVES to protect yourself from the thorns.  I used hand-pruners and loppers to prune all of my shrubs. 
I am working hard today at pruning back many of my other desert shrubs and will be posting about them this coming week, so please visit again :^) 
Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a horticulturist, certified arborist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."

28 replies
  1. Pam's English Garden
    Pam's English Garden says:

    I was particularly interested in your post today, as my son and his family may be moving to your neck-of-the-woods. In fact, my son and his wife are there right now while we take care of their children. They may want me to help with the garden if they move, so I'll be sure to stay in touch with you on your blog!

  2. Edith Hope
    Edith Hope says:

    Dear Noelle, What a learning curve life is. At the start I surely would have thought to cut down all the bare stems, certainly to the green at the base of the shrub. But what a mistake that would have been. I see exactly what you are describing and I imagine that it will only be a short time before every stem is in leaf again.

  3. Grace Peterson
    Grace Peterson says:

    Hi Noelle~~ Oh and what a beauty she'll be in a few short weeks. Don't you love the little leaves of promise? Hydrangea and clematis are two similar plants that come to mind. Pruning too early will destroy all of those lovely leaves just waiting to join the world. 🙂

  4. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    Not a problem I have here in the UK as Bouganvillia needs to be grown under cover, but the same principle does apply to other frost damaged plants.

  5. Bernie
    Bernie says:

    Such a helpful post for anyone who grows bougainvillea in an area that receives frost …. here of course that is never a problem but we still need to prune to keep it under control.
    I wear the thickest gardening gloves I can buy and I now also wear protective glasses because I've been stabbed in the eye on more than one occasion!!! Horrible plant to prune.

  6. Janet
    Janet says:

    Another good pruning lesson!! This wisdom does not only apply to Bougainvillea. I find it amazing that the Bougainvillea has such thorns…wow!

  7. The Rainforest Gardener
    The Rainforest Gardener says:

    This is a lesson I wish I learned before my first winter as a gardener… last winter actually. I've just left all the dead stuff where it is and thank goodness since we had 26 degree temps the night before last!

  8. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Hi again Noelle, so plenty of work to do in your area after winter. I have been used to see all those bougainvillas flowering all year round in some spots without anything done to them. Owners just prune them early to train or to restrain the overgrowths. Only those planted in pots need constant pruning or else they are so vegetative that will not produce much flowers. What do hou think you will feel if you have bougainvilleas on their own, like in this country?

  9. gippslandgardener
    gippslandgardener says:

    This is a very timely post for me Noelle! I was looking at a bougainvillea just a couple of days ago wondering if I should try growing one. I decided against it as I thought it would not do well with our frosts, but your post has made me think twice about that – one might do well in a sunny corner after all!

  10. Hocking Hills Gardener
    Hocking Hills Gardener says:

    Hi Noelle.
    Sorry I have not been around. This BLotanical thing has me all mixed up so I am trying to add bloggers into my Google Reader so I will not miss their posts.;-)

    I love Bougainvillea and wish they were hardy here.Do they have thorns? I do not think I knew this. With three of them you will have a mass of beautiful blooms before long. I am glad the frost did not kill them and that they are starting to bloom.

  11. Rosie
    Rosie says:

    Hi Noelle

    We can't grow these outdoors here in Scotland. They can be patio plants grown in pots but our short summer season does not give them the heat and sunlight to flower well and because I am only used to seeing smaller younger ones I never realised that they had big thorns. I've not noticed that before.

    I personally think they are better outside than in. I find them hard to look after indoors as the leaves need misted alot and they are so messy when those paper like flower bracts fall. Atleast outside the breeze can blow them away.

    Great advice here for anyone that can successfully grow them.

  12. Meems
    Meems says:

    Hi Noelle,
    Came over from some of the other Florida blogs… your bougainvillea looks better than most I've seen around here that have gotten completely fried with our weird winter. Your pruning tips are good. This might be the first EVER that I've waited this long to prune but we are still expecting more cold this week.
    It's nice to meet you.
    Meems

  13. Rose
    Rose says:

    I didn't realize you had had any frost damage this year, Noelle! Excellent tips on pruning this beautiful plant. I've been looking longingly at the garden and shrubs around here lately, wondering if I dare start pruning anything. The snow is beginning to melt, and I am itching to get outside:)

  14. Amy
    Amy says:

    Good info to know. Instinctly, I would have probably cut off all the brown. I get a little scissor happy sometimes. I will look a little closer when I prune.

  15. Kate
    Kate says:

    I struggle with the winter look of my climbing vines, too. They're so pretty in warm weather but they look so ratty in winter… 🙁

  16. arizonaplantlady@gmail.com
    arizonaplantlady@gmail.com says:

    Hello All and thank you for your comments!

    Pam, thank you for forwarding my blog to your son and his wife. I do hope they like living here.

    Hi Bernie, they can be awfully painful can't they?

    Hello Andrea, if Bougainvillea were left alone without pruning the frost damage, they would survive. The frost-damaged growth would be hidden by new growth. But, over time the shrub would grow extremely large and outgrow the space in the landscape. Out in the desert (wild), it would not survive as we do not receive enough rainfall to support it.

    Kathleen, thank you for the compliment.

    Meems, thank you for visiting and commenting.

  17. Denise Williams
    Denise Williams says:

    Will u be posting anymore updates? I'm a newbie to gardening = my prefect plant is one that I don't have to feed (pitiful I know but i'm working on it) = yes plastic, but since I picked out the front yard package for our new home 2 yrs ago here in Maricopa I've been quite lucky to have a drip system. But that doesn't solve all my problems.
    Quite recently I know we've had some freeze warnings and i'm worried that my plants were affected and I also want to learn how to prune an Oleander! YouTube is no help neither is reading about it ===I want a Visual How To…can you help?

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