Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (814)

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.

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. Vicki Carwile

    January 18, 2017
    What a great article. I was able to go straight out today and start pruning. However, I have 2 questions. First, this past year, when the trees bloomed, no one took off the seed pods. I live in South Georgia so it is almost always warm. Is it ok to strip these pods off now? Also, my biggest tree apparently dropped some pods and now I have a “volunteer” 4 foot tree that has choked out the azalea and is close to the house. Is it possible to relocate this tree or do I need to chop it down? I have to do one or the other because of the proximity to the house. Once again, this is a great article and I particularly liked the imagery of a bird being able to fly through the pruned crepe myrtle.
    Vicki

    January 18, 2017 at 9:26 pm
  2. ashley brooks

    hi, i purchased a home that has crepe myrtles that hadnt been taken care of. they were also planted under very large trees so they are growing sideways towards the sun. how should i prune them? they have been here for at least 6 years, the home has been in the family and i remember them being there. Is there a way to make them grow more as a bush, or can they be relocated? if not i plan on cutting them down they look awful and bare.

    January 13, 2017 at 8:11 am
  3. Steve Bender

    Forrest,
    Yes. Cut all the dead stumps to the ground.

    Janine,
    I would be patient. They should grow into attractive trees on their own.

    K,
    Cut them off at the ground and paint the stumps according to label directions with either Roundup or Brush Killer.

    January 6, 2017 at 9:50 am
  4. Forrest Teets

    Help!
    Two crepe myrtles in open yard space. Both bloomed beautifully this year. One red, one pink. BUT..
    All main trunks in both plants froze in previous winter and did not produce new growth. The growth to five or six feet this past summer appeared all to come from suckers. I can even break off some of the main trunks at ground level by hand(only a few, so far). QUESTION….
    Can I cut all old dead main trunks and selectively develop new main trunks from the suckers? Their blossoms in 2016 were beautiful.

    January 5, 2017 at 9:04 am
  5. Janine Barfoot

    I moved into a house with crepe myrtles about 20-25 feet tall, very spindly, little greenery even in early October and I’m near Houston. It’s late Dec and 80 deg. At my former house, I had one that was full and about 15-20 feet tall, still has lovely leaves. Can I lop the ones at my new home to a lower height and have them bush out? Or will they remain spindly such that I’m better off cutting down and planting new ones?

    December 28, 2016 at 10:35 am
  6. Sharon Reeve

    Gorgeous result!

    December 26, 2016 at 6:45 pm
  7. K SCHADEWALD

    I have bought a home in Texas. The back yard has several Crepes in it. I would like to get rid of a couple. They are not in a good place and have been left to grow wild.
    How do I get rid of stumps once I cut them down?

    December 23, 2016 at 12:15 pm
  8. mariomuaythai

    That is a good tip especially to those new to the blogosphere.

    Simple but very accurate information… Many thanks for sharing this one.
    A must read post!

    December 7, 2016 at 6:27 pm
  9. Steve Bender

    Dina,
    Leave it alone and it will grow back to its natural shape by itself. Next time, spray the webworms with neem oil.

    November 26, 2016 at 8:08 am
  10. Linda

    25 years ago we planted 5 Crepe Myrtles down the side of our back yard about 20 feet apart. We knew nothing about them and now we 5 HUGE at-least-25-feet-tall Crepe Myrtles that desperately need pruning. That will be a lot of pruning so I’m considering cutting them all down to about 15 feet tall and pruning from there down. Would doing this one time create a Crepe Murder tree? I think they would have more blooms. And I hate the seedheads because they weigh the limbs down. I’ve heard that even the birds don’t like them. Thank you so much for this article.

    November 21, 2016 at 8:05 am
  11. Dina

    I had web worms on my crepe myrtle, and had to chop of a few of the larger branches. now I don’t know what to do to get it back to its natural shape, and beauty!

    November 16, 2016 at 4:34 pm
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