Bougainvillea ‘Tom Thumb’
Bougainvillea ‘Tom Thumb’ is a compact plant (about 50 x 70 cm) with small lilac bracts.
One cannot miss bougainvilleas when they are in full flower. Looking magnificent, they hang over walls, form dense impenetrable hedges, mimic bright carpets over pergolas and create explosions of colour in large containers. The warmer the summer, the prettier they become. Bougainvilleas are primarily classified as creepers or semi-creepers. Trained up against a sturdy frame, they very quickly climb to as high as the support allows and provide colour for most of the year, except during the coldest part of winter when they shed some of their leaves.
In the warmer regions of our country the massive hedges of purple, red, shocking pink and flaming orange bougainvilleas surrounding farmhouses are a splendid sight. Along with their looks, these hedges are good for security because bougainvilleas have sturdy, thorn-like growths on their branches. In a garden with steep slopes, retaining walls or terraces, bougainvilleas come in handy as spreading ground covers that quickly cover large areas.
Bougainvilleas can be trimmed drastically without any ill effects, so they can be trained into standards and single-stemmed trees that are perfect for small gardens. There are also several dwarf varieties that are ideal for small areas and containers.
When do they bloom?
Bougainvilleas flower throughout the year, with a peak in late summer to autumn.
Most suitable climate
Bougainvilleas do best in tropical and subtropical gardens. They grow relatively well in the winter rainfall regions of the Western Cape, and other coastal areas, but won’t survive in very cold, frosty gardens. They generally tolerate light frost in parts of the Highveld, but the chance of loss is reduced by protecting them with frost cover.
What they need
Location: a warm and sunny place is best, even for potted specimens.
Soil: the soil can be sandy and stony, but enrich it with compost and ensure it drains very quickly. Bougainvilleas won’t survive in heavy clay soil that remains wet, so in gardens with that type of soil it is best to buy varieties intended for pots, and to fill the pots with commercial potting soil. If you are unsure about the drainage in your garden, but don’t want to use containers, try an old trick: plant them on little hillocks, raised slightly above ground level.
Water: too much water usually sounds the death knell for bougainvilleas. During warm weather it may not kill them, but it can mean lots of foliage and no flowers. Water newly planted specimens immediately, and then only when the soil has dried out completely. Young bougainvilleas quickly show that they need water by drooping and dropping leaves. In summer, bougainvilleas growing in the ground only need a thorough watering
every now and then. They seldom need water during winter (and cannot survive continuously wet roots and leaves). Potted bougainvilleas need water more regularly, and the containers must drain properly.
Fertilizing: to give them a good start, feed young plants regularly, especially those growing in pots, using liquid fertilizer. Feed mature plants in August, using slow-release 3:1:5, 2:3:2 or organic fertilizer, and spread a new layer of compost around them.
Pruning: sometimes suckers (shoots) form around the base of a plant. Cut these back to about 30 cm unless the plant is established and growing well. If it is a creeper or hedge, you can take some of the strongest shoots and weave them around the plant to strengthen its framework. Plants that are growing too wildly can be pruned in November in the Western Cape, and during May or June elsewhere in the country.
Watch out for this
A bougainvillea may die if you handle its roots roughly when planting it out. Never pull the plant out of its nursery bag, rather cut the plastic away carefully, using a sharp knife, and then place the plant gently in the planting hole at exactly the same depth as it was in the bag. (Prepare large planting holes, working half a bag of compost and a handful of granular fertilizer into each.)
Shape a standard Bougainvillea
You can prune and shape a bougainvillea into a standard or a small tree by doing the following: select a sturdy branch (or two that can be woven together) to form the main stem, and begin to remove the lateral growth. Support the main stem, to keep it upright, and wait for it to grow to the height you want. At that stage, cut it across the top to encourage lateral growth. Regularly trim the lateral growth to allow it to become denser. Attractive varieties to use for this purpose are ‘Donya’, which has bright pink bracts, and ‘Vera Blakeman’, which produces purplish red bracts on short lateral branches.
In a nutshell
* Work gently with the roots during planting.
* Once established, they require very little watering.
* Ensure there is good drainage.