Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (524)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. Amy

    Do you have to trim the dead seed pods?

    April 13, 2013 at 7:31 pm
  2. Joseph

    While living in Florida, I found that if you trim the seed pods right after the majority of the flowers have fallen, you can get a second set of blooms. Back up here in Tennessee, I will try it with the ones I planted.
    I don’t know if it’s something in the water up here, but not only do most people murder crepes, but very large trees, such as oaks get the same treatment. It’s almost enough to make one have a bad case of the heebie-jeebies!

    April 13, 2013 at 8:13 pm
  3. Judy B

    I way told by a local extension service man that there was a difference between crepe myrtle trees and crepe myrtle trees when it come to trimming. How do you tell the difference?

    April 14, 2013 at 11:19 am
  4. Steve Bender

    Judy B,
    I haven’t the slightest idea what he’s talking about.

    April 15, 2013 at 12:19 pm
  5. Steve Bender

    Curious in NJ,
    Go ahead and replace the mulch. But don’t spread any soil over the roots.

    Amy,
    the answer is no.

    April 15, 2013 at 12:22 pm
  6. The Crepe Myrtle Murder Mystery | Sweet Sorghum Living
    April 15, 2013 at 1:25 pm
  7. Judy B

    Steve,,,can’t believe what I just read….I was really comparing trees to bushes but I said
    “trees” twice. I know I must have sounded a little airheaded!! Sorry.LOL

    April 16, 2013 at 7:43 pm
  8. Bess

    Another opportunity in breaking up a long boring fence would is with the use of wire pattern work
    for vines. This can lead to mold growth on siding or shingles.
    For the back-yard border consider trees either maroon or gold in
    color to decorate a long-line of deciduous trees and evergreens.

    April 16, 2013 at 11:37 pm
  9. Chadwick

    I’m impressed, I have to admit. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s
    both equally educative and engaging, and let me tell you,
    you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is something that not enough folks are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy I came across this during my hunt for something relating to this.

    April 20, 2013 at 12:32 am
  10. Steve Bender

    Thanks, Chad!

    April 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm
  11. Jeri Brand

    My daughter lives in Texas and just recently sold their home, to have another one built. They had Crape Myrtles at the house, and another tree we are not sure what it is, It is a smaller size tree, with purple blooms, in the Spring, and in the winter has Red Berries. Do you know what this tree could be?? And how much does it cost to buy Crape Myrtles, they
    want a mature crape myrtle trees to plant. Thank you! Jeri B

    April 22, 2013 at 4:45 pm
  12. Melinda W.

    Greetings from Virginia, Steve! Last summer, I thought my crepe myrtles looked a little too dense and, possibly, a little too tall. Is it too late to prune them this year? Thanks so much for your extremely helpful pruning education. Having never pruned my crepe myrtles, I thought it best to first seek knowledge on the subject :) I’d always been suspicious that the annual February & March “pruning” I’d witnessed in our southern Piedmont area was just a little too drastic. It just didn’t look right! Now, I know why I had the uneasy feeling whenever I drove by a freshly “pruned” crepe myrtle. I’d been witnessing crepe murder! Melinda W.

    April 22, 2013 at 9:10 pm
  13. Thou Shalt Not Commit Crepe Murder

    [...] Crepe myrtles do need pruning but not topping.  I recommend this great tutorial by the Grumpy Gardener on How to Prune Crepe Myrtles. [...]

    April 23, 2013 at 9:48 am
  14. Julie Gillespie

    Jeri Brand, it most likely is a Mountain Laurel.

    April 23, 2013 at 2:15 pm
  15. Chuck Rosensohn

    Hello from Virginia, Steve. I have pruned a few crepe’s that were matured already…. I can’t follow the murder route either. My question… having just recently purchased a Red Dynamite in a 1.5 g pot…. to obtain the “fountain” appearance that we strive for, should I trim the leafy sprouts along the base, and if so when? They are all over the place and I know how fast a crepe can head in the wrong direction.

    April 23, 2013 at 4:51 pm
  16. Steve Bender

    Jeri,

    Julie is correct. the tree is called Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundifolia). I love it. As for how much crepe myrtles cost, that depends on the size and the variety. Big-box stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot charge the least, but their selection is not as good as those of independent garden centers.

    Chuck,

    Basically what you want to do for such small plant like yours is identify several small trunks that are growing upright and train them to become the main trunks. As they grow taller, gradually remove any side shoots growing from them, starting at the bottom and working up. You can use twist-ties to attach trunks to stakes for 6 months or so to train them upright. the plant will take it from there.

    April 24, 2013 at 8:40 am
  17. saving money

    You are so awesome! I do not believe I’ve truly read through a single thing like this before. So great to find somebody with some original thoughts on this issue. Seriously.. thanks for starting this up. This web site is one thing that is needed on the internet, someone with a little originality!

    May 6, 2013 at 6:02 am
  18. Operation Curb Appeal Stage #1 – Flowerbeds Part 1

    [...] This is a picture of our house on the day we bought it in August of 2011. Unfortunately, we didn’t know what we were doing when we were trimming our crape myrtles and we created what is commonly known in the South as “crape murder.” If you would like to read an article on how to correctly trim your crape myrtles. check out this article. [...]

    May 7, 2013 at 9:07 am
  19. Amy in Pennsylvania

    Our landscaper guy clearly didn’t read your blog, and planted a crepe myrtle against our house a few years ago. It is now a beautiful monstrosity; taller than the house and blocking both the living room and master bedroom windows. How would you suggest we get it’s overall size back in order without murdering it? Our variety doesn’t lose it’s leaves in the winter, either…when is the right time of year to prune it?

    May 7, 2013 at 9:09 am
  20. Steve Bender

    Amy,

    Your crepe myrtle doesn’t lose its leaves in winter in PENNSYLVANIA? That is bizarre! Given the plant’s size and location, I can’t see how to solve your problem without serious pruning. What you might want to do is open up the center so you can see through by thinning the branches. Remove about half the branches growing from the main trunks by cutting them back to where they meet the trunks. Do this up to a height of 6-8 feet. Now is a good time.

    May 8, 2013 at 12:11 pm
  21. ML

    Steve:

    Is it too late for me to cut back a Catawba Crepe Myrtle? Will it just postpone the bloom time?

    May 8, 2013 at 4:14 pm
  22. Steve Bender

    ML,

    No, it’s not too late. It may postpone blooms, but not by much.

    May 10, 2013 at 7:09 am
  23. Todd

    Steve,

    I live in NJ, 30min west of NYC and want to plant a Crepe Myrtle in my front yard. Have a front porch and the center of the tree would be 10′ from the porch, thus looking for a variety that grows in my area approx 10′ wide, which would put it about 5′ from the porch. Porch is like 4′ off the ground and OK with it blocking the view somewhat for some screening. Figure height between 8-15′. Looking for a pink or possibly Lavender/purple color. Any suggestions? don’t know if the heights I have seen are based in optimal growing conditions like down south vs. more up here at the outset of the zone. Want to make sure I end up with the right variety from the start and no Crepe murder.

    May 10, 2013 at 1:36 pm
  24. Steve Bender

    I have four good suggestions for you. These crepe myrtles will grow only 10-15 feet tall. ‘Catawba’ (purple), ‘Pink Velour’ (deep pink), ‘Yuma’ (lavender), and ‘Zuni’ (purple). GG

    May 17, 2013 at 7:11 am