Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (775)

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. Gracie Frick

    I’m in So Cal, so I don’t know if I’m allowed to ask CM questions here😉
    In the back of our house, we have a 25 – 35 ft CM that is at least 25 years old, with one single, beautiful, colorful trunk about 10 in in diameter. We rarely trim it, as it’s above our house with leaves visible through the 2nd story windows. Really pretty to look out when it’s in bloom

    In the front of the house, we had 3 – 40 year old Birch trees that had to be cut down. (Still getting over the loss) Our gardener suggested CM to replace it, as it works well in our area. He planted a 10 foot, 4-trunk CM in their place. I’m picking off the new leaves from the bottom 3 feet as they appear.

    Any other tips for a new planting? I like the idea of multiple trunks to replace the look of the 3 birch trees.

    July 30, 2016 at 6:37 pm
  2. Anne

    I murder my crapes (three of them) every winter and they come out beautiful in the spring. I cut them back to about 7 feet. They look so much better and so pretty in the spring when the new growth comes out. Cutting them back gives them a waterfall look. As the blooms die I cut them off. I get many compliments on how they look. So I guess I disagree with you. I think it’s all about the look you want, so to each their own!

    July 27, 2016 at 2:55 pm
  3. Grumpy Gardener

    Kennon,
    Young crepes do tend to sucker from the base, but this decreases over time. Just keep the basal suckers pruned off.

    Shalonn,
    Muchas gracias!

    July 27, 2016 at 1:09 pm
  4. Kennon Miles

    Last year I bought a house that came with several Crepe myrtles that where never trimmed. In the fall I trimmed them not knowing what I was doing. Now their blooming and don’t look to bad, I’ll do a better job this year now that I’ve read your article.
    My issue is I have new growth coming from the base of some of the trees where I don’t want it. Now my wife said you will always have new growth where you prune. Is this true? Or can I get rid of the lower new growth?

    July 26, 2016 at 6:48 pm
  5. Shalonn Martin

    I love your “grumpy” comments and info. I’ve printed off the instructions on pruning because evidently I’ve been trying to murder my crepe myrtle and haven’t succeeded. Thank goodness I don’t have the “knots” that you’ve shown above. My husband use to say I could kill any plant in 3 weeks, tops! I have a purple thumb but I’m hoping with your help it will turn green! You’re one of the main reasons I take SL!

    July 21, 2016 at 2:18 pm
  6. Grumpy Gardener

    Julie,
    I would cut off the flower clusters that the branches are too weak to hold up.

    Dan,
    Now is not a good time to prune. Wait until fall until after the leaves have dropped. Then select 4-5 of the existing trunks that are well-spaced and growing up and out. Leave them and cut off all others at the ground. As these new main trunks grow, gradually remove their side branches up to a height of 3-4 feet. Keep in mind the some crepe myrtles are naturally shrubby and do not grow into trees. After you prune, you’ll find out which kind you have.

    July 19, 2016 at 3:34 pm
  7. Are You Guilty of Murdering Your Crepe Myrtles? – Old Age Is Not For Sissies

    […] is the Grumpy Gardener. He has a column each month in “Southern Living” magazine.  Here is a link explaining how to prune your crepe […]

    July 18, 2016 at 6:14 pm
  8. Dan B

    We bought a house that has Crepe Myrtles in the front that look to never have been pruned and therefore have hundreds of thin trunks where only 3, maybe 4 trees should be. What can I do?

    July 17, 2016 at 5:21 pm
  9. Julie May Johnson

    My crape myrtles are in full bloom and are beautiful. We are getting a lot of rain and the tops are getting too heavy and breaking off. Do I need to trim them now in July? I don’t want to lose the blooms but I hate seeing them get damaged. Will trimming them now affect them next year?

    July 14, 2016 at 4:04 pm
  10. Steve Bender

    Jan and Debbie,
    Any crepe myrtle that is not sending out any new growth by now is dead.

    Irene,
    No problem. Let them be for now. Next winter, select 4-5 well-spaced trunks that are growing up and out to become the new main trunks. Remove any others. As these trunks get taller, remove all of their side branches up to a height of 3-4 feet.

    July 6, 2016 at 4:31 pm
  11. Irene Luckey

    I have been growing my crepe myrtles from volunteers for a few years and this past winter I murdered them. I cut them back to about four feet and they came back nice and bushy. Problem is I’m want them to become trees, not just bushes. Will the original trunks keep growing taller, or did I ruin my chances of having real trees? These are still young trees.

    July 3, 2016 at 5:36 pm
  12. jan Binder

    I trimmmed my the proper way and the trunks were beautiful…but…winter kill…How do you suggest I trim them when they become dead…I even left them a year to make certain no new green came back…Now I’m trying to cut them as low as I can but feel it should be down to the ground??? Advise please? Thanks… (I placed solar uplights on the trunks and it looks so great and it’s free)

    July 1, 2016 at 7:52 pm
  13. Debbie Rossi

    Hi Steve!
    I dug up 3 crepes that were growing behind my shed & we’re off-shoots from my next door neighbors’ beautiful mature Natchez that she cut down when installing a pool. The two larger shoots have not shown any indication of producing new branches, etc., but when I scratch the bark, reveals its still green. The smaller of the three has produced new branches & leaves. My concern is that the 2 larger trees have died & I’m wasting time & water on dead trees. Do you think there’s still a chance these trees will survive or do you think they’re a lost cause?

    June 23, 2016 at 3:52 pm
  14. Grumpy Gardener

    Larita,

    I wouldn’t do any heavy pruning now, unless you have too. But it’s OK to shape up the plant and remove small branches now.

    June 21, 2016 at 1:43 pm
  15. Larita Province

    Hi! :Did

    This was a GREAT read!! I recently moved into a house with crepe myrtles and now know my ex neighbor was a murderer! I love chuckling and learning something at the same time. Mine definitely need trimmed but it’s June now, should I just wait?

    June 17, 2016 at 6:42 pm
  16. Grumpy Gardener

    Denise,

    Not to worry. The decapitated myrtle will grow back from the stump — and fast!

    June 15, 2016 at 2:47 pm
  17. Denise Campbell

    Hi Grumpy Gardener; My daughter and son-in-law just moved into their new house (located in central Virginia) that has several very tall established crepe myrtles. The myrtles were planted too close to the house and were interfering with the gutters. So, my son-in-law cut them back or ‘crepe myrtled’ them as you would say. One myrtle in particular was cut back so much that it only now has about a 10 inch ‘stump’ left. Will this myrtle die now or does it have the possibility of coming back to life ??

    June 12, 2016 at 6:27 am
  18. Grumpy Gardener

    Wilson,

    That’s good advice.

    June 1, 2016 at 3:43 pm
  19. Avoid Myrtle Murder: Learn to Properly Prune Your Crape Myrtle | ChopMyTree.com

    […] The biggest concern when pruning crape myrtle is timing. Because the crape myrtle’s beautiful flowers appear on new growth, if you wait until after spring growth occurs to prune, you won’t get any flowers that year. Bummer, right? Instead, here’s what to do, according to Southern Living: […]

    June 1, 2016 at 7:39 am
  20. WIlson

    I just hired a professional to make sure my tree was being trimmed properly every time.

    May 31, 2016 at 6:23 pm
  21. Mike P.

    Thanks so much Steve. I will go,out tomorrow and do exactly that. I think being on Long Island, border line zone for crapes, probably killed the upper parts of the trees branches especially where I left seed pods.

    May 30, 2016 at 10:12 am
  22. Steve Bender

    Mike,

    Scratch the bark on the branches to see if you can find green. Cut back each branch to the topmost point where you find green.

    Bo,

    Go ahead and cut off all the dead stuff. Let you plant grow back from the bottom. It will probably still bloom this year.

    Carolyn,

    Yes, you can cut them back now. Like you say, you really have no choice (because if you don’t do it, the power company will). The previous homeowner made the mistake of not determining the mature height of this particular crepe myrtle selection. Many crepe myrtles do not grow tall enough to interfere with the lines.

    May 30, 2016 at 9:36 am
  23. Carolyn Banks

    My crepe myrtles are way too tall and they are growing into the power lines that come from the house. They are so tall that I don’t see their blooms unless I look way up. I didn’t plant them. They came with the house. But I don’t want to kill them. Can they be cut to, say, 6 ft from the ground without killing them? And when in the year should this be done? I am in Central Texas. Please don’t say this is crepe murder because the alternative to cutting them back is to uproot them entirely, which I don’t want to do. They are about 25 ft. tall.

    May 30, 2016 at 8:45 am
  24. Bb Kitz

    Greetings Grumpy Gardner. I live in Texas zone 8. First summer here and I have several beautiful and well established myrtles but they have grown many shoots from the bottom of the trunks. They have not yet bloomed but very bushy. Is it too late in season to cut off all the shoots? Please help.
    Thank you,
    Bb

    May 29, 2016 at 8:03 am
  25. Mike P.

    Grumpy gardener
    Live on Long Island zone 7 . My 6′ siren red crape myrtle just beginning to show new growth. However there are a lot of branches that have no growth so far. How long to wait until I prune them off?
    Some new growth is only half way up a branch and the top portion of the branch has no growth. What to do?

    May 27, 2016 at 6:15 pm

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