Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (831)

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. Martha C

    My crepe myrtle is 3 years old . Just pruned it for the first time it as per your instructions . My problem is that it has never bloomed . What’s wrong. It was a builder planted tree.

    February 23, 2017 at 7:49 pm
  2. Steve Bender

    Judy,
    No need to remove the seed pods.

    February 23, 2017 at 8:32 am
  3. Steve Bender

    JD and Ashley,
    As long as those crepe myrtles remain under the trees, they will always grow that way. The only way to prevent is to move them to a sunnier spot.

    Dan,
    Let nature take its course.

    Ricky,
    Don’t worry. Your crepe myrtle will live. In fact, by the end of summer, it’ll probably be taller than it was before.

    Diane,
    Just let them grow this year. When they get to 4 feet tall, prune them in winter so that each has 3-4 trunks coming up and trim off the side branches. That’s it.

    Susan,
    Well, if your neighbors are amenable, cut the ivy off at the ground. It’ll grow back, of course, so when it does, spray it according to label directions with Weed-B-Gon or Weed-Stop.

    February 23, 2017 at 8:26 am
  4. Carol Hughes

    Appreciate your humor

    February 22, 2017 at 4:06 pm
  5. Dan F

    Steve-
    Year 2 of trying to repair crepe murder damage on a 20′ Natchez…the two or three shoots that I kept last spring are all about 7′ tall, as thick as my finger and still have the seed heads on them. Do I need to trim them back at all or should I let nature take its course this spring?
    Thanks!

    February 22, 2017 at 10:02 am
  6. Ricky Barnes

    My neighbor cut mine back because he has a pool and doesn’t like the blooms. He cut it from about 12 ft. to maybe 7. I am afraid he has messed it up. This w a s done without permission also. Do you think it will live?

    February 20, 2017 at 9:29 am
  7. Diane Drown

    What do I do with baby trees? They are on their 2nd year.

    February 19, 2017 at 4:06 pm
  8. Susan Hodges

    Hey Steve, I having neighbors that have about 5-6 Crepe Myrtle’s and they have been there about 50 years or longer. The problem is that they aren’t trimmed and have years worth of ivy on them, not poison. I would love to go to them and offer to trim them up. I know they are gorgeous underneath but have no idea how to start with fixing them. I’m thinking it needs to start with cutting off ivy life supply now and then next year begin trimming. They are so tall they reach live wires.

    February 19, 2017 at 12:08 pm
  9. Judy

    But the dead pods left over during the winter…do I just trim them off to tidy it up?

    February 18, 2017 at 4:27 pm
  10. Bill Hiemer

    Steve – It is CHRISTMAS,. not Xmas!

    February 17, 2017 at 6:33 am
  11. Dee Miller

    Thank you. This is the advice I wanted.

    February 15, 2017 at 10:57 pm
  12. Elliott

    perfect! exactly what i needed to read and i got a couple intense laughs while learning. thank you dude. & thank you too dude’s wife!

    February 12, 2017 at 4:32 pm
  13. JD

    Ashley asked a question and somehow got overlooked. I also have the same problem in my new home (new to me). The CMs are growing underneath a tall tree and lean heavily to the right to the right almost on top of a 10 foot holly bush. What should I do to straighten them, if possible?

    February 10, 2017 at 4:32 am
  14. Steve Bender

    Vicki,
    Sorry about that! You can prune off the seed heads now or ignore them. It makes no difference to the plant. As for your volunteer, now would be a good time to transplant it, if you want to go that route.

    February 6, 2017 at 9:49 am
  15. Vicki

    Hey Steve
    On January 17, I asked some questions that, somehow, got overlooked. Would you please go back to those questions and help me with some answers.
    Very grateful pruner,
    Vicki

    February 5, 2017 at 11:25 pm
  16. Steve Bender

    Marileah,
    There is a way to do that that’s not so bad. Shorten the branches so that the top of the crepe myrtle isn’t flat, but more feather-shaped. Also make the cut ends slanted rather than horizontal.

    February 5, 2017 at 9:08 am
  17. Marileah

    Nice article. Last year I pruned a customers crepe myrtles just like you described here. This year she suggested I take a foot or two off the height. The crepe myrtles are big, maybe bigger than the one you have pictured. Would this be recommended?

    February 4, 2017 at 7:36 am
  18. Steve Bender

    Jim & d,
    Here’s what to do. In spring, a forest of shoots will sprout from the end of each murdered trunk. Select one or two that are growing up and out to save on each. Prune off all of the rest. These will become the new trunks. Continue removing any other shoots the sprout from the ends for two more years. Eventually, your trees will look normal again.

    February 1, 2017 at 9:14 am
  19. Steve Bender

    Hugo,
    Yours is big enough to start its training. Now is a good time to prune.

    February 1, 2017 at 9:05 am
  20. Steve Bender

    JZ,
    The object in pruning a crepe myrtle is to correct potential problems without making it look like it’s been pruned at all. Pole pruners aren’t expensive. If you don’t want to buy one, that’s your choice.

    February 1, 2017 at 9:04 am
  21. Jim

    I just bought a house with 15 crepe myrtles lining the driveway. Previous owner “crepe murdered” them. How do I bring them back to the glory?

    January 28, 2017 at 3:40 pm
  22. d

    Ok so I have crape murdered trees with big ugly stumps about 6 feet from the ground! Should I cut just under the stump and see what happens or just start over? The chutes grow and provide flowers most of the summer! They also provide a mess on the patio so I refer to them as crap myrtles!

    January 28, 2017 at 2:49 pm
  23. Hugo Ayala

    How old or how big crepe myrtles need to before they can be pruned mine are probably a yr old an maybe 5′ tall

    January 26, 2017 at 6:27 pm
  24. jz

    The tree you did here doesn’t even looked trimmed. Most people don’t have 20ft trimmers either. The branches on these things get so thick its a pain to cut them as it is. Which is why its common sense most people trim it low as they can.

    January 24, 2017 at 11:13 pm
  25. Cathy

    Thank you! I’m glad I can prune now.
    (winter) I was afraid they might be like azaleas that, if need pruning, must be done right after blooming.

    January 24, 2017 at 8:10 pm
  26. Helen Gorman

    Thank you for the excellent advice. I feel confident now. I can do this.

    January 21, 2017 at 1:47 pm
  27. Lew

    Nice of you to call people who don’t agree with you cretins and ??? Why is it that people who think they are better than everyone else has to call them names instead of simply pointing out the correct method. I don’t pay any attention to sites that do things like this author has done regardless of whether they are right or not

    January 21, 2017 at 1:20 pm
  28. 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
  29. 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
  30. 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
  31. 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

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