Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (763)

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.

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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. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. Grumpy Gardener

    Denise,

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

    June 15, 2016 at 2:47 pm
  5. 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
  6. Grumpy Gardener

    Wilson,

    That’s good advice.

    June 1, 2016 at 3:43 pm
  7. 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
  8. WIlson

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

    May 31, 2016 at 6:23 pm
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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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