Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (617)

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. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. 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
  16. Steve Bender

    Lulie,

    “No asesinato mi crepe myrtle!”

    November 13, 2014 at 9:06 am
  17. 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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