Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (688)

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. cheryl

    I have 4 natchez crepe myrtles that droop so much in heavy rain that the tree is unattractive and I’m afraid the branches will break off. Is there anything I can do to remedy this? I saw another lady with the same problem but did not see an answer.

    July 5, 2015 at 7:45 am
  2. Steve Bender

    Chuck,

    Lots of readers report the same thing. The reason is that the very cold winter killed your crepe myrtle to the ground. Now it’s growing back from the roots. The old trunks are dead, so you might as well remove them. The new shoots at the base will grow into new trunks.

    July 1, 2015 at 10:20 am
  3. Crape Myrtles: You won't Believe These Different Varieties | Fast-Growing-Trees.com Blog

    […] Prune your crape myrtles in the early spring to promote new growth for summer. If you’re wanting to maintain their natural size, it’s best to prune them back by about a third of growth. It’s common for people to think that they need to heavily prune their crape myrtles back down to half or more of their growth. This stubs the tree’s growth and gives it an unattractive look instead of maintaining its natural form. […]

    July 1, 2015 at 8:30 am
  4. Chuck Achterberg

    I did not trim my crepe myrtle at all this year, but all of the old trunks died and it growing from the bottom, why is that?

    June 28, 2015 at 4:06 pm
  5. Nancy

    Thanks much for he response. We had no idea what we were doing wrong!

    June 7, 2015 at 8:51 pm
  6. Steve Bender

    Nancy,

    St. Louis is about the upper limit of cold-hardiness for crepe myrtle, which is why yours keeps dying back. Go ahead and prune back to live, green growth now and take out the dead. There are shrub type crepe myrtles that never grow into trees. I would guess this is what you have.

    June 6, 2015 at 3:58 pm
  7. Nancy

    I have the shrub type of crape myrtles and live in the St. Louis area. Every winter, the plants appear to “die”…lose all foliage, etc. and about late May, new branches and leaves sprout at the ground level, leaving all the dead branches from the prior year leaf-less. Should we be cutting off the dead branches in late winter/early spring? They have never gotten taller than about 3 feet tall after 4-5 years. Is this normal, or just a result of our colder winter climate? What should I be doing to get these to grow taller/bigger?

    May 31, 2015 at 9:09 pm
  8. Steve Bender

    Elizabeth,

    Go ahead and prune. They’ll still bloom, albeit later than usual.

    May 30, 2015 at 6:00 am
  9. Elizabeth Milligan

    mine are much taller than I want and already have leaves – is it too late to prune them? if I do prune them will they still bloom this summer?

    May 18, 2015 at 3:54 pm
  10. Jennifer

    I’d love to see a picture of your Crepe Myrtle in bloom.

    May 13, 2015 at 6:17 pm
  11. Steve Bender

    Diana,

    I think it is too warm to move a large crepe myrtle now. The transplanting shock might kill it. Wait until it is dormant in fall.

    Melanie,

    Your good taste is exceeded only by your good sense.

    Noble,

    Sound like the cold winter killed your crepe myrtle to the ground. Cut off the old, dead trunks and let it grow back. This will happen faster than you think.

    May 13, 2015 at 2:41 pm
  12. Noble Rye

    I want to prune; however we have had a severe winter (Louisville, Ky) and it looks like my main branches are dead. There appears to be substantial new growth at the bottom of the plant. Do I leave it alone or simply cut out what appears to be dead. I’m writing this on May 7, 2015.

    May 7, 2015 at 4:58 pm
  13. Melanie Boone

    Steve….So nice of you to inform the ignorant “landscapers” and laymen who copycat their neighbor’s pruning…I mean…butchering… of their crape myrtles. Every year I see more destruction of the beautiful trunks, thus, destroying the true form of the tree that would be beautiful during dormancy had they not been butchered. Reminds me of cutting off my arms to the elbow, then growing appendages from the stumps. Mr. Sourpuss who complained you are being so tough on those who want to prune THEIR way just has no sensitivity to aesthetics and is narrow minded about what you are intending to teach…. the ART of pruning. Guess he likes the stubby gnarly look! He probably rounds off his forsythia and azalea bushes, too! Those who call themselves “landscapers” (non degree) and plant crape myrtles near buildings show they have no knowledge of or are not giving thought to the mature size of the tree. I am a young 65 years old and have soundness of mind, thank you, to have observed the advent of crape myrtle murder which has become a new malady occurring when everyone became too busy to do their yards and their “yardman” offered to prune anything and everything. Down with Crape Murder!

    May 7, 2015 at 12:40 pm
  14. Robert Haynie

    How about if I trim MY trees anyway I want,it’s one thing to just put a post or pin on ,but don’t run people in mud, and yes I do trim mine like that, and have for last 4 years and when they grow out they are beautiful

    May 5, 2015 at 4:08 pm
  15. Dianna Thomas

    What if you don’t know what kind of crepe myrtles you have? I have 6-7 small ones that I don’t know what kind they are and 3 planted, one 17 years ago in a sunny spot that grew tall but since is now in shade. Is it too late to move? The other 2 get off & on sun and are only 5ft tall as they got fungus young and it stunted their growth. They have been in ground 12 years. Should I move them or are their roots too established?

    May 1, 2015 at 11:39 am
  16. Pruning Crape Myrtles

    […] For the full article visit: Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step by Step. […]

    April 24, 2015 at 9:00 am
  17. Steve Bender

    Francine, Jenny, Grace,

    See my recent blog post: http://thedailysouth.southernliving.com/2015/04/09/how-to-fix-crepe-murder/

    April 24, 2015 at 8:57 am
  18. Grace Recio

    mY NEIGHBOR COMPLETELY TOPPED FOUR CREPE MYRTLES ALONG MY FENCE, iS THAT MURDER, THEY Have always bloomed so pretty. Will they come back to life?

    April 15, 2015 at 4:46 pm
  19. Steve Bender

    Faithful readers,

    Everybody who went ahead and butchered their crepes and now feel very guilty about it (as you should) and want to know if their crime can be fixed, read Grumpy’s recent post, “How To Fix Crepe Murder.”

    April 13, 2015 at 7:51 am
  20. Steve Bender

    Mike,

    No problem. Go ahead and prune now.

    April 13, 2015 at 7:50 am
  21. Steve Bender

    Donna,

    The green stuff is called lichen. It is harmless.

    April 13, 2015 at 7:49 am
  22. Steve Bender

    Patti,

    Train the suckers to be the new trunks. Select 4-5 well-spaced ones that are growing up and out and remove the rest. Crepe myrtles grow back fast.

    April 13, 2015 at 7:48 am
  23. Steve Bender

    Sharon,

    Your crepe myrtle should be fine. Be patient.

    April 13, 2015 at 7:45 am
  24. Steve Bender

    Everybody who went ahead and butchered their crepes and now feel very guilty about it (as they should) and want to know if their crime can be fixed, read Grumpy’s recent post, “How To Fix Crepe Murder.”

    April 13, 2015 at 7:43 am
  25. Patti Pettitt

    I live in Southern California with Santa Ana winds. My crepe myrtle’s main trunk ( lots of suckers we’ve been cutting off for 15 years) blew down this year. Will the suckers grow into a tree or are we better off starting with a new tree.

    April 10, 2015 at 1:12 am
  26. Patti Pettitt

    I live in Southern California with Santa Ana winds. My crepe myrtle’s main trunk ( lots of suckers we’ve been cutting off for 15 years). Will the suckers grow into a tree or are we better off starting with a new tree.

    April 10, 2015 at 1:08 am
  27. armando huizar

    I was researching how to prune crape myrtes trees and came across your fine site. Thank you for so much information on this subject.

    April 9, 2015 at 6:54 pm
  28. Donna Henry

    My crepe myrtle has a green velvet like substance on the trunk could you tell me if this is a fungus or what . The tree is still young i bought it 2 years ago. Thanks Donna

    April 6, 2015 at 11:05 am
  29. Donna Henry

    My crepe myrtle has a green velvet like substans on the trunk could you tell me if this is a fungus or what . Thanks Donna

    April 6, 2015 at 10:59 am
  30. Mike

    I procrastinated a little to much this year and waited too long to prune my crepe myrtle. It started sprouting leaves this weekend. I prune it every year and I don’t murder it. Should I wait until next year or can proceed with pruning it to promote new shoots and blooming.

    April 5, 2015 at 5:07 pm
  31. sharon

    Planted trees before the first frost. They look dead. Did I kill them?

    April 5, 2015 at 4:48 pm
  32. Steve Bender

    Francine & Jenny,

    To restore a murdered crepe takes several years. Lots of shoots will sprout from the ends of each thick stub. Pick two that are growing up and out. Save these and remove all others. They will become the new main trunks. Over the next three years, don’t allow any shoots to grow from the stubs but these. Eventually, your tree will look normal.

    April 5, 2015 at 9:29 am
  33. Steve Bender

    Jenny,
    You don’t have to wait. Prune this year according to the directions above, training the main branches to grow up and out. Remove crossing and crowded branches and those growing inwards towards the center.

    April 5, 2015 at 9:25 am
  34. Julia Hooper

    Thank you for this extremely informative article. My husband was itching to “chop” our crape myrtle which has grown taller outside our den window. To prevent the “murder” I now have instructions on HOW TO DO the pruning 100% accurately and have pictures included—end of potential argument and crape myrtle saved. I also appreciate knowing the correct spelling of crape myrtle too. Thanks for being a “problem solver”. J. Hooper

    April 4, 2015 at 7:03 am
  35. Steve Bender

    Francine & Jenny,

    To restore a murdered crepe take several years. At the end of each stub, lots of shoots will grow. Select one or two that are growing up and out, save these, and cut off the rest. These will become the new main limbs. Don’t let any more shoots grow from the stubs but these saved ones for the next three years. Eventually, your plant will look normal again.

    April 4, 2015 at 5:47 am
  36. Tee Jay

    So, my house came with crape myrtles previously “murdered” for years. It has not been pruned yet this year. What do you suggest? Wait till next year and start following outline above?

    April 3, 2015 at 5:01 pm
  37. Sue Thom

    Hi, Steve. I really enjoyed this post and printed it out so I can consult it when I prune my crape myrtle in my back yard. I want to point out that the correct spelling is CRAPE (not crepe). Don’t feel bad; almost nobody knows this! But I thought you’d want to know. And thank you (and I’m sorry you had to see them) for the “crape murder” photos you’ve posted! I hope all your readers learn from these atrocities!

    March 31, 2015 at 5:33 am
  38. Thomas Scalf

    Thanks for the advice, our trees look a lot better and they seem happier.

    March 30, 2015 at 8:56 am

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