The Bougainvillea plant is one that I’ve always admired. When I started my container garden, I knew that I wanted to enjoy those year-long tropical blooms myself.
You can grow Bougainvillea in a pot that is 12 to 18 inches deep and wide. You can choose a dwarf variety that does not grow very large and can live in the pot. Make sure to give the plant 8 hours of direct sunlight. Prune the vines to keep it growing well inside the pot.
Bougainvillea can be a difficult plant to grow especially when starting from seeds. But with a little knowledge, you can have this beautiful plant growing well in your garden. I’ve written down all the details you need to start growing them.
1. Choose the best time to grow bougainvillea
Bougainvillea is a tropical perennial that thrives in warm weather. It’s possible to grow it in colder climates, but timing is everything when you’re just starting.
These plants are notoriously difficult in the early stages of growth. The root system is delicate, which can sometimes make establishing the plant a chore.
The key to success when establishing Bougainvillea is to plant at just the right time.
Aim to plant in the early summer. Late spring planting is fine, too. The main benefit of this timeframe is time and warmth. The young plant will take advantage of the summer heat to grow strong before temperatures fall for the autumn and winter seasons.
The root system will always be relatively delicate. But planting in warmer temperatures gives the roots enough to spread and take advantage of nutrients in the soil. If you wait until winter, the plant won’t take and will likely die off at even moderate temperatures.
2. Pick the right location to grow bougainvillea
As a heat-loving plant, warmer climates are best. These vibrant plants do best in temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. However, they can tolerate temperatures above 100 degrees.
Gardeners in zones 9 and up, will see the most success. The plant is hardy enough to flourish all year long in those zones. It’s a true perennial that won’t require too much care once established.
You can still grow the plant further north. But, you’ll have to take extra precautions.
In colder climates, the Bougainvillea is often treated like an annual. To keep it around longer, you must bring it inside when temperatures fall below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily, planting in containers makes that an easy task.
These plants can withstand one-off frosts. But prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures will kill it off quickly. So, keep an eye on temperatures and bring the plant inside to ensure that it can tough it out through the winter.
3. Understand how long bougainvillea takes to grow
Bougainvillea plants are shrubs. But, they’re not small by any means. These plants have fast-growing vines that can quickly climb trellises.
The biggest cultivars easily reach 20 to 30 feet tall and just as wide.
The cool thing about this plant is that it doesn’t take long to get there. Once established, Bougainvillea can grow more than 36 inches per year.
Of course, growth rates can vary wildly based on the cultivar you plant as well as growing conditions. That said, there’s a good chance that your plant will start flourishing pretty quickly. Most will start to produce new growth within a few months. Significant development typically happens in the spring after planting.
When Do Blooms Come In?
Bougainvilleas produce unique flowers. When ready, these plants will produce clusters of vibrant pink blooms.
But contrary to popular belief, those eye-catching bursts of pink or red are not flowers at all. Instead, they’re bract leaves. These specialized leaves surround the true flowers, which are small and white. Bract leaves do not photosynthesize like normal leaves. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that they are virtually identical to standard leaves beyond the color.
These plants are capable of blooming all year long. In warm climates, the colorful blossoms appear between May and December. You might see continual bloom cycles throughout the year or one during the spring, summer, and fall seasons. Either way, the blooms are certainly a sight to behold.
4. Pick the bougainvillea variety best for containers
There are any Bougainvillea cultivars out there to choose from. Variations in color, height, and spread are important to consider.
Technically speaking, you can see success with most cultivars in containers. Even larger cultivars can do well in a pot with proper care.
However, your best bet for container gardening is going to be dwarf varieties. These plants are smaller and more compact, reaching heights of around 18 inches or so. Some good cultivars to try out include “Oo-La-La” and the ever-popular “Raspberry Ice.”
5. Select the right container to grow bougainvillea
Bougainvilleas can thrive just fine in containers. However, you have to set them up for success by choosing a good pot to start.
The vining plant is rather unique in the fact that it doesn’t need a massive container. While it gets big, these plants prefer to be pot-bound. It likes it when the delicate roots feel restricted a bit. Utilizing an over-sized pot may cause developmental issues.
The exact pot size that’s right for you will depend on how you choose to plant it. For seeds, a small 6-inch pot will suffice. That’s ample room for the roots to develop and spread. Plus, you can transplant later whenever the plant is ready for an upgrade.
Young nursery plants or cuttings are a bit different. In these instances, the right size will depend on the root ball and the existing container. As mentioned earlier, the roots are very delicate. The goal here is to choose a pot that’s only one size larger. That will provide enough space for the roots to get bigger and more widespread. But, it provides enough confinement for pot-binding.
Material and Drainage
Now, those delicate roots can pose a problem when it comes to pot material. Clay and terracotta pots often have large pores. While good for retaining moisture, Bougainvillea roots tend to get stuck in pores and on rough textures.
To avoid issues like that, stick to pots that have a smooth interior. Look out for glazed interiors. You can always use plastic containers, too.
The next thing to pay attention to is drainage. These plants need ample drainage to avoid root rot. They will not tolerate pooled water at the bottom, so choose a container with at least one drainage hole.
You don’t have to go over the top with drainage holes like with other plants. Like rough textures and pores, too many drainage holes can end up damaging the roots. Many gardeners like to add a layer of fine mesh over existing drainage holes as an added precaution. It may not be necessary for you, but use your better judgment based on the design of the pot.
Finally, let’s talk about insulation. Thick pots are fantastic in terms of decor and durability. But if the pot is too thick, you may end up overheating the soil. This happens a lot when the container is in a super sunny spot. Avoid black containers or super-thick walls that could hold onto heat too much.
6. Plant the bougainvillea in the container
Once you have the perfect pot ready to go, it’s time to get planting.
The first thing to do is to prepare the soil. Bougainvillea likes rich loamy soil. Loam-based soils offer suitable drainage while still holding onto drainage pretty well.
A loam-based potting mix will do fine for the Bougainvillea. Consider mixing some organic potting soil to give the plant a boost of nutrients. We’ll get into the specifics of fertilization later, but for now, use about a quarter of the pot’s volume. Mix the compost and soil until everything is fully mixed and incorporated.
How you will proceed depends on whether you plant from seeds or cuttings.
Growing Bougainvillea From Seeds
Planting from Bougainvillea is a good option if you want complete control over how the plant grows. But, it will take a bit longer for the plant to establish and produce blooms.
If seeds are the route you choose to go, simply sow the seeds directly into the pot. Rake them in at a depth that’s roughly two to three times the thickness of the seed. Give the soil a deep, but gentle, watering. Then, place your pot on a heated propagation mat.
Set the heating element to about 77 degrees Fahrenheit. This setting is enough to keep the seeds warm without cooking them.
Be patient and continue to water the seeds to keep the soil moist. Bougainvillea can take well over a month to germinate. Just keep at it until you see those tiny sprouts emerge from the soil.
When that happens, keep the pot on the heating mat until the plant is big enough to start its life outdoors.
Growing Bougainvillea from Cuttings
Using cuttings is a better option if you want to enjoy your Bougainvillea as soon as possible. Cuttings are available at nurseries and usually come from softwood portions of an established plant. Look for a cutting that’s about four or five inches long. It should have four to six nodes.
Remove any leaves and place the cut-side into the soil. Plant it at a depth of about two inches. To promote root growth, you can dip the exposed cut in some rooting hormone before planting.
Put the newly planted cutting in a warm spot and water it regularly to keep the soil moist. In a few months, the cutting should have enough roots to move outside for further development.
7. Give bougainvillea the required sunlight
As a tropical plant, sun exposure is a must-have for Bougainvillea.
These plants do best in full sun. At the very least, it should have access to six hours of sun exposure. But if you can provide even more basking time, take advantage of it.
More sun is very beneficial to the Bougainvillea. Plants in warm sunny spots tend to grow at a faster rate than those that get the bare minimum. Not only that, but the color of those blooms and bracts are more vibrant.
It’s important to be careful about excessively hot days. As I said earlier, these plants can withstand temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But if you’re experiencing those temperatures for several days in a row, it may be best to provide a bit of shelter around midday. Doing so will prevent the soil from getting too hot for the plant’s liking.
Providing Warmth in Cooler Climates
If you live in a cooler area, providing ample sun exposure is not the easiest. However, there are some tricks to help you meet the needs of the plant.
The first is putting the container on the south side of your home. South-facing walls tend to experience more sun throughout the day. In this spot, the plant can take advantage of the sun as it rises and sets, allowing it to soak in those rays as much as possible.
Another option is to put the plant against the wall of your house. Your home will provide some radiant heat that helps to keep the soil warm. Corners are particularly effective. Put the plant against the house on colder days.
If you’re experiencing freezing temperatures, take it inside to avoid lasting damage and stunted growth in the spring.
8. Give bougainvillea the right watering
The Bougainvillea plant is pretty drought-tolerant. However, that only applies once it establishes.
In the early stages of growth, this plant will need regular deep waterings. Plan to water the plant regularly throughout its first year or until it starts blooming.
When watering new plants, provide enough hydration to keep the soil moist. Hydrate the plant until water starts seeping through the drainage holes. Then, wait until the potting mix starts to feel a bit dry to the touch on top.
There’s a fine balance between overwatering and underwatering. It’s better to err on the side of caution to avoid drowning the plant. As long as you wait until the top layer of soil is dry, you should be alright.
Watering Mature Plants
Once your plant starts flourishing, you can scale back on watering.
Bougainvillea is more likely to bloom when the soil is on the dry side. Thus, these plants don’t need a great deal of water to stay healthy. All they need is a deep watering once every three to four weeks. Like before, water until excess moisture starts to drain from the bottom of the pot.
You may have to water more frequently in hotter climates. Just keep an eye on the soil’s moisture levels. It should remain slightly, but not completely, dry.
Don’t let the soil get to the point of being bone dry. When this happens, the bracts and other leaves will wilt up and fall off.
9. Prune bougainvillea in the container
Bougainvilleas are vining plants that will continue to grow with or without your intervention. It’s a good idea to use a trellis or some type of support system for the plant once the vines get sufficiently long. Even dwarf plants can benefit from growth support.
Many gardeners train the plant with trellises or allow the vines to sprawl on a fence.
Even if you like the look of a sprawling Bougainvillea, you need to prune these plants regularly. Thanks to their fast-growing nature, Bougainvillea can quickly become too much to handle.
Overgrowth results in too much density at the base of the plant. Not only that but allowing the plant to grow unchecked may result in stunted development. Blooms only appear on new growth. When you don’t prune, the plant will just use its energy to get bigger and bigger. The goal is to enjoy those colorful bracts, right? To do that, put your pruning shears to work.
How to Prune Bougainvillea Plants?
The goal of pruning is to remove dead growth. This will encourage new growth where blooms will develop.
Keep an eye on the ends of the wood. Using pruning shears, snip the ends just after a bud node. This is where the leaves and lateral branches emerge.
You can also cut off any dead or dying branches as they occur.
If you’re looking to keep the plant in a specific shape, you can trim entire branches, too. Young plants, in particular, will benefit from full branch trims. Cutting off weaker branches as the base will promote thicker regrowth.
When to Prune Bougainvillea
The best time to prune this plant is going to be when it’s semi-dormant. Usually, this occurs in the fall or early spring.
You can also prune during the resting phase of the blooming cycle. Resting phases happen in-between blooming periods.
Horticulturists recommend pruning the Bougainvillea at least once a year. But, more frequent maintenance to address overgrowth is beneficial as well.
10. Add fertilizer to the bougainvillea plant
To create all of that lovely color, Bougainvillea relies on a constant supply of nutrients. In the ground, many plants can obtain the nutrients they need. But in containers, you’ll have to provide them through fertilizer.
Bougainvillea plants do best with monthly feedings during the blooming cycle. Start in the late spring. Depending on your climate, you may be able to continue fertilization well into the fall season.
However, it’s important to scale back feedings as the winter months approach. Stop providing fertilizer in the late fall to ensure that the plant can conserve its energy for dormancy.
What Kind of Fertilizer does Bougainvillea Need?
You don’t need any special kind of fertilizer for Bougainvillea plants. A balanced formula will do just fine. For the best results, use a water-soluble or slow-release formula.
Nitrogen and potassium are essential for plant health. But, you don’t want to overdo those nutrients. Nitrogen, in particular, may do more harm than good. Excess nitrogen will result in more foliage growth, leaving little energy for the plant to create blooms. This may cause the Bougainvillea to get leggy and overgrown.
A water-soluble and slow-release fertilizer can help moderate nitrogen levels a bit. They ensure that the plant is getting the necessary nutrients for bloom production. However, they also limit access to avoid over-production of leaves.
When applying the fertilizer, prepare it according to the instructions. For water-soluble fertilizers, this typically means mixing it with a specific volume of water.
Then, just water your plant as you normally would. Focus the water stream on the soil and avoid splashing any liquid onto the stem. Do not get any fertilizer on the leaves, either. Direct contact with fertilizer could cause burns that damage the plant.