Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (605)

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. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. Steve Bender

    Lulie,

    “No asesinato mi crepe myrtle!”

    November 13, 2014 at 9:06 am
  5. 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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