Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (649)

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. Jenny

    I have messed up & cut my crepe Myrtles before reading bout them. I’ve done what you call crape murder & I’m so sick bout this…. my question is…. will they ever grow back tall like they were, in time? Can they be saved somehow?
    Plz Help!!

    March 26, 2015 at 4:38 am
  2. Steve Bender

    Claudia,
    Is the fact that it’s over 15 feet tall causing a tangible problem? If not, I’d just let it go. If it is, the best advice I can give is not to flat-top it as you prune. Cut back branches to slightly different heights with the tallest ones in the middle.

    March 20, 2015 at 9:38 am
  3. Steve Bender

    Christie,

    Large, very old crepe myrtles often die in the center leaving healthy trunks around it. As these trunks grow, they eventually fill in the space, so I think I’d leave yours alone.

    March 20, 2015 at 9:33 am
  4. Claudia Veliky

    When the crepe myrtle has been pruned internally correctly, how is the heighth managed? Tree now over 15′ high. Thank you for your interest in my question! !

    March 19, 2015 at 3:58 pm
  5. Christie Cryer

    There are 3 (were 4) 20-25 feet tall crepe myrles at the home I purchased. There is a huge 5 in diameter stump in the center of them that had been cut off at about 5ft and is dead. The 4th one is there by itself and nothing grew back (from whenever, whoever cut them). The other three are very large with many branches, like I said about 20-25 tall. The blooms, although scarce, are a dark pink in color. My question is this, How do I remove that big ungly trunk in the middle. I fell like there will be a huge gap in them. Should I just cut them down and start over??

    March 18, 2015 at 12:34 am
  6. Steve Bender

    Linda,

    The same principles apply to pruning a bush as a tree. You want to train the plant to 3-4 well-spaced main trunks and remove the side branches from the bottom 2-3 feet.

    March 16, 2015 at 2:17 pm
  7. Steve Bender

    Debi,

    The best time to prune is in late winter or early spring before the plant leafs out, because it’s easier to see what needs to be done and the plant blooms on new growth. The one time you should never prune is late summer, because the plant will send out new growth that won’t harden off in time for winter and be killed by the cold.

    March 16, 2015 at 1:53 pm
  8. Steve Bender

    Jacob,

    My crepe myrtle is taller than my house too, but I’ve trained it so that its branches don’t touch the house and it isn’t any problem at all. If yours really are 40 feet tall, then you’ll need to hire a tree company to prune them. Tell the company you don’t want them flat-topped, but cut to look as natural as possible without thick, ugly stubs. Use pruning saws, not chain saws.

    March 16, 2015 at 1:50 pm
  9. Crepe Murder 2015 — Don’t Let ‘Em Grow Up to Be Trees, Boys | Southern Living Blog

    […] For their fearless reporting, Elizabeth and Krys become winners #9 and #10 in Crepe Murder 2015! They will receive a signed copy of The New Southern Living Garden Book. If you want to know how to correctly prune your crepe myrtle, click here. […]

    March 15, 2015 at 10:00 am
  10. Linda Courtney

    How does trimming the crepe myrtle bush differ from the trimming the crepe myrtle tree?

    March 12, 2015 at 4:44 pm
  11. Open Season on Crepe Myrtles | Southern Living Blog

    […] Check back here this Sunday for winners #9 and #10. For instructions on how to prune crepe myrtles the right way, see “Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-By-Step.” […]

    March 12, 2015 at 10:01 am
  12. Riley Arroyo

    I just couldn’t depart your site prior to suggesting that I really enjoyed the standard information a person provide
    on your guests? Is gonna be again regularly in order to check out new posts

    March 11, 2015 at 9:34 am
  13. Reyes Ragan

    I always spent my half an hour to read this blog’s content everyday
    along with a mug of coffee.

    March 11, 2015 at 8:44 am
  14. Crape Myrtles: How to Prune, not Murder | Fast-Growing-Trees.com Blog

    […] 2. Don’t dead head them! Although, dead heading is common in a few different shrubs, if you cut back all of the branches you’ll hurt your chances for blooms! Small branches will grow from the stubbed trunks, and they might be too weak to support blooms! If they’re too weak they’ll droop and may even break. […]

    March 11, 2015 at 7:12 am
  15. Crepe Murder Winners #6 & #7 — Shooting You The Bird | Everything Country

    […] Check back here this Thursday, March 12, to see winner #8. And if you’re wondering how to correctly prune a crepe myrtle, read “Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-By-Step.” […]

    March 9, 2015 at 4:05 pm
  16. Debi

    When can I prune? Anytime of year?

    March 9, 2015 at 1:04 pm
  17. Jacob

    Hey I have 5, 35 to 40 foot myrtles. I love these trees and don’t want to hurt them. But they are taller than my 2 story house by far. I need to trim these trees really bad but how much can be trimmed? I know from some research that now is the time of year to do so but all I have read on trimming doesn’t really tell about crepe myrtles the size that I have! How short or how much can I take off of these? Ideally I would like to take 10 to 15 feet off the top of all the trees.. Is this possible?

    March 9, 2015 at 9:00 am
  18. Crepe Murder Winners #6 & #7 — Shooting You The Bird | Southern Living Blog

    […] Check back here this Thursday, March 12, to see winner #8. And if you’re wondering how to correctly prune a crepe myrtle, read “Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-By-Step.” […]

    March 8, 2015 at 10:00 am
  19. Crepe Murder Winners #3 & #4 — Funeral For A Friend | Everything Country

    […] Check back here this coming Thursday for another glorious winner in Crepe Murder 2015. And if you’re wondering how to properly prune a crepe myrtle, click here. […]

    March 2, 2015 at 2:54 am
  20. Grumpy Gardener

    Tracy,

    One of the reasons so much crepe myrtle occurs is that people plant crepe myrtles in front of the house without realizing how big they’ll get. Then they’re doomed to annual pruning. One answer is to plant crepe myrtle selections that grow to 10 feet or less. There’s an extensive list with complete descriptions in the New Southern Living Garden Book.

    March 1, 2015 at 4:15 pm
  21. Crepe Murder Winners #3 & #4 — Funeral For A Friend | Southern Living Blog

    […] Check back here this coming Thursday for another glorious winner in Crepe Murder 2015. And if you’re wondering how to properly prune a crepe myrtle, click here. […]

    March 1, 2015 at 10:00 am
  22. Rick Callahan

    Thank you very much for you helpful and witty tips. This was always my wife’s job, but she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer In Jan. 2013 si we let it go last winter. She has gone home to be with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ a few weeks ago, so now the the jib falls to me. I want to do a good job, so that she can enjoy her favorite tree from on high and my neighborhood won’t think I’ve climbed into a bottle in my grief.

    February 27, 2015 at 5:03 pm
  23. don

    you are a better man than me if you can cut 30 footers with those tools.

    February 27, 2015 at 2:34 pm
  24. Tracy

    We just bought a new house and the former owners were morons who planted a crepe myrtle in the front flower bed way too close to the house in front of the bay windows! Yup that is what I am stuck with I do not want to pull the whole plant out it is way too large for that now so I have no choice but to trim it back in the crepe murder style which makes me very angry. I wish they had put it what we have of a front yard but they didn’t. Our new home is up on a hill terraced up from the road so there is only about 8 feet of “yard” where the deer come and chew on our other landscaping so we toss corn down the terrace near the street for them. I am assuming there is nothing I can do with this poor beautiful myrtle than involve myself in crepe myrtle even though I screamed and yelled every year when our old neighbor did the same to hers. I hated it and I’ll hate doing it but I must. It is way too close to the house to do otherwise. Poor thing.

    February 26, 2015 at 4:50 pm
  25. Crepe Murder Winner #2 — Would You Pay A Dollar For This Tree? | Everything Country

    […] For those of you who don’t know, “crepe murder” refers to the barbaric, copycat Southern ritual of chopping back a crepe myrtle into ugly stumps each winter for no good reason. For expert advice on how to properly prune a crepe myrtle, read “Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step By Step.” […]

    February 26, 2015 at 2:54 pm
  26. Crepe Murder Winner #2 — Would You Pay A Dollar For This Tree? | Southern Living Blog

    […] For those of you don’t know, “crepe murder” refers to the barbaric, copycat Southern ritual of chopping back a crepe myrtle into ugly stumps each winter for no good reason. For expert advice on how to properly prune a crepe myrtle, read “Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step By Step.” […]

    February 26, 2015 at 10:00 am
  27. Tori

    Thank you forvthe term “crepe murder”…drives me nuts when my neighbor does this.

    February 22, 2015 at 9:31 pm
  28. Steve Bender

    Julie,
    Yes, it is possible transplant a large crepe myrtle. You need to do this when it is leafless and dormant and get as big a root ball as you can manage.

    February 19, 2015 at 6:15 am
  29. Steve Bender

    David,

    Cut back a branch that is too tall to the point where it meets a larger branch or the trunk.

    February 19, 2015 at 6:13 am
  30. Julie Foster

    Is it possible to relocate a mature Crepe without killing it? My lovely sister was kind enough to plant one for my Mom in her flower bed about 8 years ago and it has flourished there, but looks wildly out of place towering over everything. Any advice on this quandry?

    February 10, 2015 at 7:16 am
  31. David

    What do you mean by always cut back to a larger branch of the trunk? Thanks for the post.

    February 7, 2015 at 12:41 pm
  32. Linda

    My husband just trimmed our beautiful crepe myrtles – to what I think are “stumps” as you mentioned, can I send a picture of ours to show you, not sure if they will survive
    So upset in the Southwest!!😩

    February 6, 2015 at 9:40 am
  33. Steve Bender

    Jerry,

    Yes, you can restore a butchered crepe myrtle. Read how in this article: http://www.southernliving.com/home-garden/gardens/stop-dont-chop-crepe-myrtles

    January 25, 2015 at 8:43 am
  34. Oma julie

    Best advice I could give my Son in law Who is a get’er done but not a handy man

    January 18, 2015 at 9:17 am
  35. Carolyn Banks

    Thanks for answering and it’s good to know about the aphids, but what is more important to me is this: if I do cut these trees short, will they live? And is there a time of the year when that should be done? The one I saw in the park is cut as a stump about 6 inches above the ground, yet beautiful blooming shoots grew out of it, 4-6 ft. high. That is what I’d like to have happen to mine.

    January 13, 2015 at 11:51 am
  36. Steve Bender

    Carolyn,

    This is why I encourage people to plant newer kinds of crepe myrtles that don’t grow more than 15 feet tall and therefore don’t need pruning. These include ‘Acoma’ (white), ‘Catawba’ (purple), ‘Pink Velour’ (deep pink), and ‘Tonto’ (red). I can’t think of anything else to do for the ones you have now but to prune them shorter. The sticky stuff is honeydew secreted to sucking insects such as aphids. You can kill the aphids by spraying the foliage with horticultural oil according to label directions.

    January 13, 2015 at 11:12 am
  37. Steve Bender

    Jerry,

    I guess if people can eat squirrels and squirrels can eat crepe myrtles then it only makes sense the people can eat crepe myrtles, so don’t let me stop you from preparing a fine meal. You can send pics of crepe murder to grumpygardenersl@gmail.com

    January 13, 2015 at 11:06 am
  38. Carolyn Banks

    I have very tall crepe myrtles in my front yard. They are so tall, you don’t even see the blooms unless you look up specifically to see them. I have seen crepe myrtles cut the almost the bottom and then they bloom like shrubs, which is what I would like to do. In other words, I want short crepe myrtles. Is that ok? I don’t want to kill them, I just want to see the blooms! Also, at some point during their blooming, they drip a horrible substance onto my car. it doesn’t wash off in a regular car wash! Help! (Carolyn Banks, Bastrop Texas)

    January 13, 2015 at 8:59 am
  39. Jerry Cartwright

    I saw this article and since I had a couple of unruly crepe myrtles in desperate need of attention I read it, paying very very close attention to the “crepe murder” part. Even though I am a hunter in the deep South and eat what I hunt, I don’t want to have to cook any crepe myrtles because I’ve killed the poor thing. For me this article was very easy to read and to understand. Most of being common sense in my mind. I’ve seen this crepe murder first hand and it ain’t a pretty sight. My wife works for a chiropractor and he has 3 at his practice. One on the side of the building, which is a very nice one and two in the very front of the building so they can be seen when you drive up. These are the two that have been mutilated by a so-called care taker. All I’ve seen him do is take care of their money by doing stupid stuff like killing poor defenseless crepe myrtles. I had my daughter go by and take a couple of pics of theses trees with adding them in my comment but I am too dumb to know how to include them. These poor trees have the gnarliest knots all over them. I guess this guy cut them back because they are right under the eave of the building. Wrong kind for the application I guess. They have crossed branches that have actually grown into other branches. It is a very sad sight. Is there any hope at all for these crepe myrtles or are they destined to live out their remaining years as ugly, unsightly, gnarly, head high knotty bushes with long shoots growing out each spring?? Thanks Grumpy for a very good article.

    January 6, 2015 at 8:00 am
  40. Steve Bender

    Don,

    For young trees the size you have, start by training them to have 4-5, well-spaced trunks that grow up and out. Remove any crossing branches or branches growing inward through the center of the tree. As the trees grow, remove all side branches up to a height of 4 feet. You will end up with nicely shaped trees. The older crepe myrtles get, the less pruning they need.

    January 3, 2015 at 8:57 am
  41. Don Nale

    These tips are for grown large trees, I have two small one about 5 feet, do I do the same ?

    December 27, 2014 at 6:36 am
  42. Steve Bender

    Drew,

    Prune bridalwreath immediately after it finishes blooming in spring.

    Mike,

    Make a clean cut just below each knuckle. A long of shoots will sprout from the stub. Remove all but one or two.

    December 24, 2014 at 9:27 am
  43. Mike

    let’s say that the previous owner created crepe myrtle murder and I have knuckles with small off shoots you showed?

    I wonder if I should cut below them.

    December 22, 2014 at 12:42 pm
  44. Drew Martin

    Steve, OMG My mother is 82 yrs old. Although I love horticulture and, I guess have always lucked up and pruned my bushes ? Whenever? My ‘Mom’ asked me to please come prun her shrubs and trees. I swear, they’re ten ft tall and a fly let alone a bird couldn’t fly through these myrtles. I’m using your advice about the crapes but when and how do you prune or ‘trim’ bridles wreath?
    Drew
    How about bridles reath.

    December 19, 2014 at 10:00 am
  45. Heather Hansen

    I, personally, am so glad you showed this. People here in the south seem to love “murdering” their crepe’ myrtles. I have a Southern Living gardening in the south book my grandmother gave me. Her book. It states you absolutely do NOT cut back your myrtles. It is detrimental to the tree. weakening and deforming them. Everyone, in my neighborhood who prunes, kills the myrtles. Even the yard workers, supposed professionals, do the same murderous deed.

    December 9, 2014 at 9:35 am
  46. Pamela Estep

    Steve,
    Thank you for your reply and advice. I did give him a list of pruning tools to purchase. We’ll see what happens.
    Pamela

    November 13, 2014 at 10:57 am
  47. Steve Bender

    Pamela,

    I shudder whenever someone mentions “crepe myrtle” and “chain saw” in the same sentence. I would never use one of those to prune. But if he’s determined, tell him to prune branches back to the trunk or a joint with another branches. Don’t leave thick stubs or a zillion shoots will sprout next spring.

    November 13, 2014 at 9:11 am
  48. Steve Bender

    Lulie,

    “No asesinato mi crepe myrtle!”

    November 13, 2014 at 9:06 am
  49. Pamela Estep

    Hi,
    We have two Crepe Myrtle’s. One is grown and was here when we purchased our home, but the other one is a new one I purchased last Spring. There was another tree that the previous owner planted too close to the Crepe Myrtle causing it to grow to one side (the west). My husband cut that tree down last year and the Crepe Myrtle is still leaning to one direction. We thought it might fill in and straighten out but since it didn’t my husband is talking about pruning it which is fine. But he uses a chain saw to prune everything and I’m afraid it will do damage instead of help..

    November 8, 2014 at 9:50 am

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