Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (726)

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. Christine VanDuker

    Dear Mr Bender,
    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
    Thank you for posting this. I knew there had to be a better way. Your instructions were easy to follow and so specific.
    Can’t wait to see how my crepe myrtles turn out.
    Christine V.

    February 11, 2016 at 5:02 pm
  2. Steve Bender

    John,
    Sounds like you should remove the spruce.

    Sandy,
    If you can, please email a photo of the spikes to grumpygardenersl@gmail.com.

    February 11, 2016 at 3:12 pm
  3. SANDY PLEDGER

    Hello….Help please! I have 6 crepe myrtles and they have begun having green spikes on the limbs. I sprayed them last year, but I’m seeing signs already of this same thing.

    February 7, 2016 at 11:51 am
  4. John McKeever

    Crepe Myrtle done. An Alberta spruce is over grown at the front porch with a blue spruces poping out from a branch graft like. There are critters burrowing deep under cement porch. I’ve trapped all kinds moved them to a park setting. Would like to cut it down & throw out widen porch 3′ = 6′ wide. Pant another Alberta pine I have in a barrel.. Why should I not destroy it or how not to!

    January 21, 2016 at 5:18 am
  5. Steve Bender

    Amber,

    When you cut back a crepe myrtle rather severely, the shoots that sprout have larger than normal leaves. the leaf size decreases as the new growth slows.

    Sharon,

    Make sure your crepes get plenty of sun. Full sun is best. Also, young crepe myrtles sometimes grow just foliage and branches the first year, so they may bloom better this next year.

    January 12, 2016 at 11:12 am
  6. Kathy Partridge

    We have 4 old crepes. All were planted in flower beds near our house (by prior owner). We were told by professionals that we could take them down 18 inches a year until they could be seen from our windows. They were all over the roof line. We live in central Texas. They all grow out and bloom every year and we keep the trunks and shoots cleaned off the base. Yesterday, early January, my husband hired a tree trimmer and has already cut them back. Will they survive the rest of the winter? I normally don’t do this until March. Thanks. Kathy in Georgetown, Texas.

    January 8, 2016 at 3:11 am
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  8. Lorraine Berry

    Number two is a tad bit too ambiguous for me… Can you explain?

    January 5, 2016 at 5:43 pm
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  10. Steve Bender

    Jeannette,

    I would prune those branches back to the main trunk, so you don’t have to deal with this problem next year.

    Wendy,
    You have the right idea. Cut off the knobs and then work on shaping the new growth that follows them.

    December 14, 2015 at 4:09 pm
  11. Lynette

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    December 11, 2015 at 6:03 am
  12. Wendy Tedder

    Is there any hope for a similarly murdered crepe myrtle at at house I just bought? It’s the only crepe myrtle around and I don’t want to lose it. My original plan was to cut the knobby trunks under the knobs in a mounded formation over the tree silhouette – flat (or wedge pointing up?) trimming of trunks, but layered into a mound shape, like a normal crepe myrtle. Will that work if I prune to select appropriate trunk extensions when the new growth comes? The trunks are nicely done at the base, and about 5″ in diameter.

    December 7, 2015 at 11:08 am
  13. Jeannette

    I have Nacez that are planted around my house but not against it. Some of the limbs are growing so that they hang over and touch the roof as the arch over. I am getting ready to get this trimmed back-so do I have those limbs cut back to a main beach or just at where it hits the roof?
    Thank you.
    Jeannette

    November 29, 2015 at 7:37 am
  14. Steve Bender

    Carol,

    You’re right. NW Ohio is too far north for crepe myrtle. At best, it will probably die to the ground each winter and then grow back. One thing you might try is mounding up a bile pile of tree leaves around the base to keep the roots from freezing.

    Shelly,
    This tree is way to big to take on yourself. Call an area arborist. Ask him to avoid giving the tree a flat-topped chainsawed look and maintain the natural form as much as possible.

    Tiff,
    The reason the new sprouts still have leaves is that the pruning sent them into a high-growth mode this year. This won’t happen next year. Pretty soon all of the leaves should drop and the tree will leaf out again in spring.

    cm989,
    It is NOT necessary to prune a crepe myrtle to keep it blooming. And pruning below where you cut the year before will not kill it.

    Donna,
    Sorry, but I think you live too far north for a crepe myrtle to do well.

    Jim,
    Suckers are shoots that sprout from the base of the trunk(s). They should be removed to prevent the center of the tree from getting too crowded.

    November 20, 2015 at 1:35 pm
  15. Jim Brunick

    I have an unknown brand of crêpe myrtle that my wife purchased a year ago you used the term sucker days apparently our something to do with the branches coming out of the ground please describe better for me so I can prune properly

    November 14, 2015 at 8:58 am
  16. Donna

    What kind of crepe myrtle would grow in the Pittsburgh PA (30 miles north of the city) and where can I purchase one ?

    November 13, 2015 at 7:04 am
  17. ccm989

    Hello — I live down at the Jersey Shore (zone 7). Every March, I “murder” my crape myrtles. I trim the branches right above where the last years trim was. I was told this is necessary to keep the crape myrtles flowering vigorously every year. So far it has not failed. I was also told if I prune below where I cut the previous year, I will kill the plant. Is this true? Also will thinning the tree help keep down the mildew it occasionally gets?

    October 23, 2015 at 7:02 am
  18. Tiff

    I took your advice and pruned my tree like you suggested. I still got stuff coming off the stumps that I have to keep cutting off. However, I noticed that I actually have real leaves on those whereas the rest of my tree is nothing but dead leaves and round buds I guess. How can I get my whole tree to be nice thick branches and real healthy leaves?

    October 20, 2015 at 4:26 pm
  19. Shelly

    I have a Crepe Myrtle in my front yard in front of bedroom window (no I did not plant it, the previous home owners did). I have never cut or pruned it and it has since grown 10 years with a mind of its own. I believe it is over 50 feet tall now… best guess as it could be taller, I do know it is above(way above) my roof line. Not sure how to start or where to start… or, is there a professional that I can call? I live in Suburbs of North Atlanta (Cumming area). Please help

    October 20, 2015 at 12:55 pm
  20. Carol B

    I live in northwest ohio i planted my tonto crape myrtle in juneit flowed this summer i know now i shouldn’t planted it in this part of the country but i have it now what can i do is there any way to protect it for this winter

    October 16, 2015 at 1:49 am
  21. Karen – arbormasters.com

    Great tips. There are rules about pruning the trees. Otherwise they will not grow anymore. And you have explained it quite briefly. Thank you Steve.

    October 12, 2015 at 2:28 am
  22. Lana Ryan Ellis

    Hello….I live in South East Texas, right off the LA border…I have some Crepe Myrtles that are approx. 5 yrs old (only been in the ground for 3 yrs) the main trunk is maybe 3″ in diameter….I have been afraid to prune them, wanting them to get good and settled in the ground first…. but after this winter I am ready to prune them, as they are getting bushier than I want them too…..my question is, how far down should I do this first ever pruning?

    October 4, 2015 at 2:16 pm
  23. Mike

    Thanks. I will try to rejuvenate a previously “murdered” Myrtle

    September 30, 2015 at 12:11 pm
  24. Nancy Evans

    I have a question. The crepe myrtle we have, we’ve had about three years. Young. This summer it bloomed as it did last summer, on mostly new growth. As soon as the blooms died back, the new growth lost all its leaves and some branches became brittle. Last week the tree sort of bloomed again. Flowers were small and lasted about two days. We had an extremely wet spring and then suddenly went dry. What is going on and can we save this tree? We did have a late freeze too. Thank you for any help you can give me.
    Sincerely, Nancy Evans
    Mount Vernon, Texas dnevans1943@yahoo.com

    September 28, 2015 at 6:30 pm
  25. C. A. DeLadurantey

    believe it or not, I use ANTI-BACTERIAL dish soap to repel all pests including on the grass..the pests don’t like the taste and it will not hurt the plants..I do this about 3x during the growing season and it greens up the lawn…no mushrooms…and all the plants in the yard love it…it also repels aphids…sprayed a maple tree once and the aphids stayed away from it for over 5 years!!! Put the soap in a hose end sprayer (till about 1/3 to 1/2 full. attach to hose and spray!! Not just any old dish soap will do…IT MUST BE ANTI-BACTERIAL….and 1 tip..do not spray lawn if rain is expected…won’t hurt it but all your neighbors will wonder why you have suds on you lawn!! Good luck

    September 8, 2015 at 11:42 am
  26. DeeDee

    My question would be, how can I get rid of white flies? They were all over my crepe myrtles (and most of the yard actually) the past two years. I have used multiple products that the larger chains carry & the local nurseries have suggested. I cannot get them killed. They leave the horrible black junk on all the foliage of my crepe myrtles, therefore they do not bloom until late August and early September. Then there is very little bloom on them at all. I am talking about crepe myrtles that are anywhere from 8′ tall to 30′ tall. They would be beautiful, if I could kill the white flies. PLEASE CAN ANYONE HELP ME? I am so sad that again they have not bloomed. I will be doing the needed pruning, per these instructions in late winter. Thank you so!

    September 3, 2015 at 9:58 am

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