Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (599)

What concerns people most in the country right now? Losing their jobs? Losing their retirements? Nope. It’s how to properly prune their crepe myrtles Here’s a step-by-step guide showing how the Grumps prunes his.

Loppers_1_2

Why do you need my advice? Because a lot of you take guidance from your ignorant neighbors neighbors, who prune their crepe myrtles to look like this.

January_2008_018_4

This is what I call “crepe murder.” I didn’t invent the term. I think it was coined by Byers Nursery, a big wholesale grower of crepe myrtles in Huntsville, Alabama. I just did what we Americans have always done so well — pass off other’s good ideas as your own.

Crepe murder is bad for several reasons.

1. It turns beautiful trees into ugly stumps.

2. It prevents the formation of pretty, mottled bark on maturing trunks.

3. A forest of skinny, whip-like shoots sprouts from the end of each ugly stump. These whips are too weak to hold up the flowers, so the branches often bend to the ground, like a drunk who’s about to lose his lunch.

Another reason people butcher crepe myrtles is because they say their plants get too big. All that this means is that these cretins chose the wrong plant for the wrong spot. Most popular crepe myrtle varieties (‘Natchez,’ ‘Miami,’ ‘Sioux,’ ‘Dynamite,’ Muskogee,’ ‘Watermelon Red’) grow at least 25-30 feet tall. So plant them out in the yard — not in front of your bay windows. Or go for compact, lower-growing kinds, like ‘Acoma,’ ‘Centennial,’ ‘Hopi,’ ‘Prairie Lace,’ ‘Victor,’ ‘Zuni,’ of the Petite Series from Monrovia.

Cm_before_2

The crepe myrtle you see above is deep-pink ‘Miami.’ I planted it in my front yard from a 3-gallon pot 15 years ago. I never pruned it much, because I strung it with tiny Xmas lights that I never took down. Leaving them on the tree reduced my Xmas decorating each year to 10 seconds. All I had to do was plug in the lights before Xmas and unplug them after. You could learn from this.

However, not being able to prune without cutting the light cords meant my crepe myrtle grew too dense and spread too wide. So last week, I took off the lights. Then, aided by my lovely unseen wife who agreed to take pictures, I finally pruned it to show you how it’s done and how a mature crepe myrtle is supposed to look. Murderers, take note!

Here is the crepe myrtle before I started. It doesn’t look too bad, but needs thinning. The tool leaning up against it is my trusty pole pruner. I like it because you can extend the pole to cut branches more than 15 feet from the ground.

Crepe Myrtle — Your Questions Answered

Objectives

Before you prune anything, it’s a good idea to know what you’re trying to accomplish. After all, you can always go back and cut more. You can’t go back and cut less. My objective was to maintain well-spaced, main trunks with handsome bark and to thin out out the center to permit easy penetration of sunlight and air. I always say if a bird can easily fly through the center of your crepe myrtle, the branches are spaced about right. If a bird can easily fly through the center of your house, you’re probably missing some windows.

Pruning Tools

To properly prune a mature crepe myrtle, you need 3 tools.

1. Hand pruners to clip twigs and branches less than 1/2-inch thick.

2. Loppers to cut branches 1/2-inch to 1-1/2 inches thick

3. Pole pruners or a pruning saw to cut branches more than 1-1/2 inches thick.

When to Cut
Late winter (right now) is the best time to prune a crepe myrtle, because it’s leafless and you can easily see all of the branches. It also blooms on new growth, so pruning now won’t reduce blooming. In fact, it may increase it.

What to Cut

Remove branches in the following order.

1. Suckers coming up from the base.

2. All side branches growing from the main trunks up to a height of at least 4 feet.

3. All higher branches growing inward towards the center of the tree.

4. All crossing, rubbing, and dead branches.

5. Branches growing at awkward angles that detract from the tree’s appearance.

Always cut back to a larger branch of the trunk. Don’t leave stubs. Removing seedheads on the end of branches is optional. Leaving them doesn’t reduce blooming. I leave mine.

Pole_pruners_2

The Finished Product
Below is the result of this year’s pruning. Isn’t it purty? The crepe myrtle is still a little denser than I would like, but I can prune it again next winter. Every year, the job gets easier.

Cm_after_2

More Crepe Myrtle Stuff

If your appetite for all things crepe myrtle still isn’t sated, you can read more brilliant commentary from the Grump about crepe myrtle care.

COMMENTS

  1. Adrienne

    I started one from seed and never pruned it. I want it to grow into the classic multi-trunk tree, It’s about 5 years old, and I have not pruned it much. I’ts about 5 feet tall, and bush-like. I think it’s time to prune, and this article will be my guide.

    October 30, 2014 at 8:34 am
  2. Steve Bender

    Steve,

    Both I and your crepe myrtle feet you pain. I think I’d leave it alone.

    October 14, 2014 at 6:21 am
  3. marty l. massey

    Not only was your article helpful and enlightening, it was most entertaining to read, ESPECIALLY for a Monday morning! Thanks for your help!

    October 6, 2014 at 7:18 am
  4. Steve Cornson

    My wife snapped off about five branches of a three yr old tree because they were hanging too low over the drive way. the othe side of the tree is at 10 to 15 feet. Don’t know whether to prune the longer ones or just don’t touch it.

    October 2, 2014 at 7:45 am
  5. Mary Lindsey

    I was wondering if Kathy that responded July 12 2014 would send me a picture of her myrtles.

    September 30, 2014 at 3:36 pm
  6. Mike

    Thanks for the tips. Pruning is addictive.

    September 21, 2014 at 2:17 pm
  7. Scott

    thanks steve.. yeah we live in the Tampa area and our soil isn’t the best.. I had a small bag of fertilizer given to us by the nursery but I lost it and wasn’t sure what to use… I’ll look around for what you mentioned.

    September 17, 2014 at 5:56 pm
  8. Steve Bender

    Scott,

    Usually, crepe myrtles need no fertilizer. However, since you mentioned a Queen crepe myrtle that is semi-tropical, I’m guessing you live in south Florida where the soil is sandy. In that case, I might fertilize it once a year in spring with something like 10-10-10.

    September 17, 2014 at 2:23 pm
  9. Scott

    Hello, we have a new one year old Queen Myrtle in our front yard. I’m confused on the fertilizer mix to get.. as far as the 3 number combination.. I see a tree and shrub mix with 16-4-8.. however I read that a number too high in nitrogen category would promote huge leaf growth and little flower.. i’ve even seen a 5-30-5, which has a huge phos. number.. what is the typical recommended mix for Myrtles?

    September 17, 2014 at 12:39 am
  10. Steve Bender

    Wanda,
    Suckers usually grow from surface roots that have been damaged, usually by a lawn mower. All you can do is cut them off and try not to damage the roots.

    August 28, 2014 at 1:04 pm
  11. Steve Bender

    Erich,
    Crepe myrtle loves heat and Kansas City is on the edge of its hardiness limit, so that may affect the flowering. But I wonder how long your plant has been in the ground. If it’s been just recently planted, give it a couple of years to get established and flowering should improve.

    August 28, 2014 at 1:03 pm
  12. Wanda

    How do keep the suckers from growing other than having to prune all summer? Is there something I could spray to keep them from growing back?

    August 23, 2014 at 5:09 am
  13. Erich

    Hi, I have a crepe myrtle in my front yard here in Kansas City MO .

    It seems to be flourishing well enough with little to no involvement on my part except it doesn’t produce a lot of flowers, mostly a lot of foliage instead.

    Is there anything I could do to stimulate and maximize flowering?

    Do I live too far north for optimal conditions for this plant? We have experienced a cooler than typical summer this year and the crepe myrtle didn’t produce any flowers until late July.

    August 22, 2014 at 9:26 pm
  14. Steve Bender

    George,
    If I had to guess, I’d say the soil is too dry.

    August 8, 2014 at 11:16 am
  15. Steve Bender

    Laura,

    Yes, ‘Natchez’ does get big — about 30 feet. I would shorten the branches in late winter, trying not to cut anything thicker than an inch. Don’t just flat-top it. Round it off at the top so that it has a more natural form.

    August 8, 2014 at 11:16 am
  16. Steve Bender

    Margaret,
    Yes, that is a problem. If you buy a bottle of Natria Disease Control, you can attach it turn the end of a garden hose and spray. If the water is turned up high enough, it reaches pretty far.

    August 8, 2014 at 11:13 am
  17. George Herrera

    We have 8 myrtles, each a different color.
    Is browning around the edges of the leaves too much or too little water?

    August 7, 2014 at 1:01 pm
  18. Laura

    Hi! I am a dummy who planted a Natchez in front of the house – too close of course – so I’m wondering how I should prune it each year to keep it better in check. I don’t think moving it is an option as it’s been there 4 years. It started taking off this year, so I need to figure out a game plan. Thanks!

    August 4, 2014 at 4:12 pm
  19. Margaret Wright

    Thanks Steve, for that advice but one more question: Since these trees are so large and tall, where do I spray — at the base. it would be pretty impossible for me to spray the foliage.

    August 3, 2014 at 7:11 pm
  20. Steve Bender

    Barbra,

    What you’re describing is a “standard” tree trained to have just one trunk. Usually you have to buy these at a garden center. Of course, you could do the training yourself by pruning it to a single, upright trunk.

    July 31, 2014 at 2:45 pm
  21. Steve Bender

    Dixie,
    Like many others, your crepe myrtles were killed to the ground by the winter cold and are now growing back from the bottom. Go ahead and cut out the dead.

    July 31, 2014 at 1:40 pm
  22. Steve Bender

    Margaret,
    I think your crepe myrtles have a disease called Cercospora leaf spot. Try spraying them with a natural fungicide called Natria Disease Control. You can find it in garden centers. It’s safe around people and animals.

    July 31, 2014 at 1:38 pm
  23. Steve Bender

    DogDad,

    Thanks, man. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

    July 31, 2014 at 1:36 pm
  24. Steve Bender

    Outdoor Mama,
    Sometimes young crepe myrtles produce flower clusters too large for the branches to hold up and the branches break. You did the right thing by cutting them back. As the trees get older, the branches will strengthen and you won’t have this problem. Don’t dig it up!

    July 31, 2014 at 1:04 pm
  25. Steve Bender

    Michael,
    The black mold is a fungus that grows on the sticky honeydew secreted by sucking insects, such as aphids and mealybugs. Get rid of the insects and you’ll get rid of the mold. Try spraying your trees according to label directions with horticultural oil, wetting both the upper and lower leaf surfaces.

    July 31, 2014 at 1:00 pm
  26. Dixie Crouch

    Dixie C
    I have 6 crepe myrtles in my back yard that I planted almost 10 yrs ago. I have always pruned them back every yr n very early spring and they have always done very good but this year I didn’t get to them until June and they had put out heavily at the bottom and had not and still have not put out at the top so I am guessing that they aren’t going to at this late date. These trees are at least 10-12′ and are dead probably half way up. Just can’t figure out what happened except for our crazy winter we had here in West Texas. Can I go ahead and cut out all the dead or is it better to wait until the winter. Makes me very sad to have to cut them back so far.

    July 29, 2014 at 1:52 pm
  27. Margaret Wright

    I have a couple of beautiful lavender crepe myrtle trees which I’ve never pruned — they are probably 12 ft tall. but last summer and this, they started losing their leaves in July; probably half of the leaves are turning yellow and falling right into my swimming pool!!!!

    I don’t know if its a disease or what. I don’t see anything on the leaves, but I have been noticing millions of little tiny caterpillars also in the pool — any suggestions? By the way, I am in North Florida. Thanks

    July 28, 2014 at 4:04 pm
  28. Barbra Joan

    My Crepe Myrtle. I didn’t know anything about how to prune or not… I just knew I wasn’t going to murder it , like I’ve seen around town . I live in Plant City, Florida.
    I’m already cutting some of the cross branches, suckers are gone and it’s now about 10 ft. high. It looks very much like yours .. but I’ve seen them with just one trunk and would like to get one of those… Love my Crepe Myrtle. Thanks for all your info and your humor too. !

    July 27, 2014 at 7:32 am
  29. DogDad

    To Brian, Are you kidding me? You say it is politically incorrect to post about how to prune crape myrtles since we need to be more sensitive to the unemployed. I have two thoughts. First, the unemployed shouldn’t be reading about their crape myrtles at 11 AM. They should be working on getting a new job. Second, I doubt seriously that anyone who is reading the comments consider this their top priority. If you are unemployed, then why in the heck are you wasting your time reading about crape myrtles. I know back in the day when I was in charge of hiring candidates, I could weed out whiners like you in a flash. Grow some thicker skin.
    To Steve, Keep up all off your great work. It is definitely appreciated.

    July 23, 2014 at 7:33 pm
  30. Outdoor Mama

    We inherited some overgrown crepe myrtles when we moved into our house a couple years ago. Last summer, two trunks on one myrtle in full bloom cracked at the base when we got a good rain. Of course I removed those broken ones but I didn’t want it to happen to the rest of the trunks so I got up on my ladder with loppers and chopped off the tops of the trunks as high up as I could reach this past spring. It’s a common hot pink variety and I’m wondering if this particular tree was just weak, as it seems a bit sturdier this year with shorter branches, and nothing cracking from the weight of the blooms. I’m not sure if I can do anything to correct its form, maybe I should chop all the trunks to the ground next spring and hope for suckers? Or just dig it up? all the trunks are about 2.5 to 3″ diameter, but last summer the branch tops were reaching past my second story window, so disproportionate height to thickness I guess.

    July 23, 2014 at 2:17 pm
  31. Michael Garguilo

    I live in Lancaster SC. lately we have had a great deal of rain. The Crepe on the front lawn is dense, with a an enormous amount of blooms. The branches drooped due to the rain, now I’ve noticed that the leaves are starting to fall and the leaves have a black fungus on them, the back of the leaf has small white insects on it, looks like small eggs, some of the leaves are being eaten away, they have small holes. Is there anything I can do to save this tree??

    July 23, 2014 at 7:41 am
  32. brian

    Just a tad insensitive that with so many needing a job that the biggest thing on everyones mind is how to correctly prune. Perhaps a different choice of words would have been good

    July 19, 2014 at 10:56 am
  33. Steve Bender

    Ignacio,
    Pruning or lack of it is not the problem. Make sure your crepe myrtle gets plenty of sun. It blooms best in full sun. It also likes hot weather, so maybe it’ll need a few more weeks.

    July 17, 2014 at 3:33 pm
  34. Steve Bender

    CJ,

    There is still a chance.

    July 17, 2014 at 3:29 pm
  35. Steve Bender

    Aggie,
    You can leave the original trunk there as support or cut it off now. It’s your choice. As for the suckers, select 4-5 well-spaced ones growing up and out to become the new trunks. Cut off the others at the ground.

    July 17, 2014 at 3:28 pm
  36. Aggie Scott

    I planted 3 single trunk Tuscarora crepe myrtles in December. They were about 7 ft. tall. They did not survive the frost, but are sprouting vigorously from the roots. I have selected the best stem and have been cutting all the other suckers off as they come out of the ground. My new single-stem trees are between 3 1/2 – 4 1/2 ft. tall and are throwing out new branches half-way up the stem. Should I cut off all of them or at what height should I stop and let them branch out?

    My next question is what to do with the dead stem of the original tree? I have been using it at a stake for the new tree that is coming up. Do I need to cut it off at the ground?

    July 15, 2014 at 11:15 am
  37. cjbeal

    Thanks for the advice, Steve. i did as you directed. It’s doing pretty good! No flowers though…. Think I’ll see any this year? cj beal

    July 14, 2014 at 12:45 pm
  38. Ignacio Salas

    My Crepe Myrtle Is about 11 ft tall. I bought it 3yrs ago. It only flowered the 1st year. The instructions were not to prune it the 1st year. The leaves are burgundy like, shiny and in good health but no flowers. Thhe branches aren’t crowded. I live in San Jose Ca and this time of year, July its usually in the 80’s. What can I do today to get it flowering

    July 14, 2014 at 10:18 am
  39. Kathy

    Amen Brother! EVERY year I have an ongoing battle with my father about trimming (he murders them) my crepe myrtles. Hands off. I have triimed mine for the past 10 years as you have shown and I am very happy with how beautiful they are. I have Natchez as a living break between myself and a neighbor with a purple dwarf variety filling in the spaces between the Natchez. The blooms have been profuse so far this summer and the sweet smell is invigorating. LOVE my myrtles. 07/12/2014

    July 12, 2014 at 10:11 pm
  40. Steve Bender

    LJ,

    Go ahead and prune.

    July 10, 2014 at 11:34 am
  41. Debbie

    My crepe mytle was murdered, the trunk split and died back what new growth there is, is short and thick around the stump. Is there any hope at all that it can grow a new trunk?
    Its been this way for at least a year.

    July 5, 2014 at 4:23 pm
  42. Shirley

    I Love my beautiful Crepe Myrtles….They R Deep purple and full of enormous blooms..They line the front entrance from our driveway into our yard. I have even used them in wedding along with my deep purple Hydrangeas. Everyone Awes at them….I followed Southern Livings Directions from my Mothers SL magazine many years ago.
    Thanks Southern Living for being A Family Tradition.

    July 5, 2014 at 5:50 am
  43. Jan Graham

    We planted Crape Myrtles three years ago and they still haven’t bloomed – they look healthy and the green foliage grows like crazy – they just don’t bloom – what are we doing wrong -

    July 3, 2014 at 2:45 pm
  44. karen

    thanks for the information. love crepe myrtles.

    July 2, 2014 at 8:37 pm
  45. JH

    I live in NY, what time of year do you suggest for pruning, same time? I’ve never pruned mine and it’s huge and it needs to be shaped a little. Other than that it’s just gorgeous

    July 1, 2014 at 4:04 pm
  46. Jan Binder

    THANK YOU Steve Bender…My Crepe Myrtles died down to the ground this year…all but two…which I’ve pruned down to where the new green growth has submerged…my largest and most beautiful died down to the ground and I’ve suckers coming up…I so hate to cut the big branches …I had solar up lights on it and it bloomed white…was beautiful day and especially night…I have solar lights on the others as well…Glad it’s not to late to prune the others down…Thanks again…Love Southern Living!!

    July 1, 2014 at 1:12 pm
  47. Steve Bender

    LJ,
    I would prune your crepes now exactly as your describe.

    June 30, 2014 at 2:18 pm
  48. Are There Zombie Trees? | Your Hub for Southern Culture

    […] Answer: First, email me your SSN, date of birth, and bank account password. This is extremely important. Next, decide whether you can wait a few years for your crepe myrtle to grow back. The winter cold killed it to the ground. To get it to grow back, cut off all of the dead trunks at the ground. Then select 4-5 well-spaced sprouts at the bottom that are growing up and out to become the new trunks. Cut off all others at the ground. For this first year, remove any side branches that grow from these sprouts. Thereafter, prune according to the directions given here. […]

    June 26, 2014 at 10:01 am
  49. LJ

    I just recently bought a new house with crepe myrtles flanking our driveway. The crepes look like they have never been pruned and the blooms are causing the branches to droop onto the driveway, sidewalk, and our neighbors yard. Is it too late to do some pruning? Specifically I want to remove all the cross branches no bigger than twig size and remove one large branch that is drooping onto the sidewalk.

    June 24, 2014 at 5:25 pm

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