Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (590)

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. Barbara C. Ross

    Hi Steve! I live in Rhode Island and fell in love with the beautiful crepe myrtles while visiting New Orleans in the summer of 1990. On my drive home I stopped at a nursery in Maryland and was told the trees would not winter over or bloom in the north. Being a very stubborn and determined gardener I bought one anyway and planted it in my back yard in the shadow of a mighty cedar on the west side and a picket fence on the north side. My lovely crepe myrtle has not let me down!! It keeps surviving some very harsh winters (although not this past one)
    and continues to surprise me with new growth each year. It took a few years to finally bloom, more and more in the past few years. This summer, it is spectacular, big beautiful pink blooms everywhere. I am glad to hear thar the bark does peel because I was concerned when I saw that this year, now I won’t worry. Thanks for the pruning info, actually that is why and how I found your site. It is so tall now, about 18 – 20 feet and seems top heavy with all the large flowers so I think pruning is necessary. Do you think I should wait for early spring or maybe late fall? I’m thinking it might not be a good idea in our cold, snowy winter.
    By the way, my Lilac bush is about six feet from the Crepe Myrtle and is a beauty also. You should try one!!!
    Barbara

    August 27, 2012 at 6:34 pm
  2. Steve Bender

    Patricia,
    This is happening all over this year. It’s a result of drought and extreme heat. When the temps drop and you get some good rain, your crepes should bloom fine.

    D. Moroney,
    Your plant is suffering transplanting shock, due to being transplanted in hot weather. Keep it well-watered until it drops its leaves this fall and it should make it.

    Jennifer,
    I’d pull up the Mystery plant.

    Bill,
    You can prune your crepe myrtle back to the height you want every year, but it will definitely look pruned. Don’t know if you’d ever try this, but you could also cut it off at the ground this winter and let it grow back. It will grow back quickly and get to 6 feet before you know it. It will even bloom.

    August 27, 2012 at 11:28 am
  3. Bill

    I have a 10 year olde crepe that I planted too close to the house. It is clearly a large crepe. Is there anything I can do to prune it down and keep it at about 6 feet?

    August 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm
  4. Jennifer

    I bought 3 myrtles a couple of weeks ago really cheap cause they looked a little rough. I planted them and after a few days noticed something new growing from the ground with them. I’m new at this tree growing stuff. So should i pull it up or leave it alone?

    August 23, 2012 at 11:48 am
  5. cindi clements

    enjoyed reading and learned some too. I saved you to my favorites. Thanks so much.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:53 pm
  6. D. Moroney

    I had a pretty little pink dwarf crepe myrtle, in full bloom, that I had to transplant this week due to construction that was displacing it. I planted it in a properly sized and soil amended hole, and watered it well since planting it ( 4 days ago). The day after planting the flowers faded and now the leaves are going brittle. Is this expected from a summer transplant — and will it survive?

    August 21, 2012 at 9:50 pm
  7. Patricia Driesbach

    Grumpy, love your blogs but especially about crepe myrtles. We have 6 spread around our yard, and they are really large. 5 have not been pruned at all so are about 20+’ tall….last summer and this summer, we have had a lot of exteme heat and 6 weeks of rain & storms this summer. Our myrtles have not produced the blooms as in the past. So disappointing for they have been spectacular in the past.& just gorgeous. Any ideas as to why? Some yards and areas here in So. Alabama seem to have the same issues. Maybe you can help! Thanks so much.

    August 21, 2012 at 2:43 pm
  8. Steve Bender

    Shana,
    About the only thing you can do at this point is prune off some of the blooms to lighten the weight on the branches. Or wait until after the blooms fade and prune off the green seed pods. GG

    August 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm
  9. Shana Holler

    I have a crepe myrtle….not sure what kind, it flowers pink and is probably around 10 feet. I have never trimmed it but i am having the problem of the branches being weighed down after a rain. What do i need to do???
    Shana

    August 19, 2012 at 5:58 pm
  10. Donna Stillwell

    I have moved into a house with many existing crepe myrtles. Knowing the previous owner, I know that nothing has been done to them in over a dozen years so they are extremely tall. I would really like to turn them back into shrubs instead of trees. Can I do this safely without harming the plant?

    August 18, 2012 at 4:19 pm
  11. Carey N.Barnes

    Grumpy,
    I have been reading a lot of comments about crepe myrtles and how not to prune them . I have
    eight deep red ( when they bloom ) plants that are four years old . They have grown tall (about
    fifteen feet high ) . Last year hurricane Irene blew a large oak tree down on one of them and
    broke it up . This one is now about eight feet high and is blooming like crazy but the others
    have no blooms at all and the leaves turn yellow and fall off . I can not arrange to have oak
    trees fall on the ones that refuse to bloom . What can I do ?
    RED BARNES

    August 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm
  12. Paige

    Hello there! We have 6 crepe myrtles on either side of the house, all about 30 ft and leaning on the roof. With trees this large, is there a limit to how far back you can prune? Since they grow so fast I would like to cut them back to about 10 ft. The trees are all about 20 yrs old and luckily some previous owner pruned them correctly at some point and they all have a nice “tree” shape with a central trunk about 5-7 ft tall. Thank you!

    August 16, 2012 at 2:18 pm
  13. Rodney Davis

    Hey Mr Grumpy, I have a white crepe myrtle near my house. I love how it blooms but I hate the fact that it grows so big and tries to swallow my house. I am constantly pruning it to reduce its size but it grows back almost faster than I can cut. It is out of control. In the fall/winter I cut it back to about 3 ft tall, by june its 8ft and still growing. I’m surprised I haven’t commited crepe murder. Can you recommend a crepe myrtle that grows no taller than 5 to 6 ft tall and is not a dwarf? Preferably with red blooms. Thanks!

    August 16, 2012 at 1:42 pm
  14. Mary Midwest

    Can you recommend crepe myrtles that will grow in Zone 5 (5b to be exact)?

    August 14, 2012 at 2:11 pm
  15. Sandy Taylor

    We have purchased a house that has about 12 crepe myrtle trees, very mature, years old. Some of them have moss on them. What can we do to get rid of it?

    August 14, 2012 at 9:04 am
  16. Grumpy

    Do you cut back your crepe myrtle severely in winter or early spring? Doing so produces long, whiplike branches that are too weak to hold up the flowers and the flower clusters become very large. So let your crepe grow taller, like the one in the photo. As for what to do right now, the only thing I can recommend is reducing the size of flower clusters that bend branches over.

    August 9, 2012 at 2:11 pm
  17. Esther ruth

    My blooms are so large and top heavy. When it rains the branches droop and break off. My tree is about 4 years old. How can this be prevented?

    August 9, 2012 at 1:09 pm
  18. Steve Bender

    Sue,
    Either way will work.

    August 9, 2012 at 9:13 am
  19. Steve Bender

    Liz,
    Yes. Wait until its leaves drop this fall and then transplant it. Get a nice, big root ball and water thoroughly after it’s in its new home.

    Sue,
    Either way will work.

    August 9, 2012 at 9:03 am
  20. sue queen

    looking for “train” crape myrtle cuttings……lop off the top of 5-8 inch cuttings once rooted to get them to branch?? or plant 2-3 per pot to get the multi stem plants? thanks
    sue

    August 9, 2012 at 8:19 am
  21. Liz Deal

    I, too, have committed crepe murder. But in my defense, I inherited a tree that is too large for it’s place, right next to the front porch. In one season it has grown 10-12 feet. Is there a way to move it without killing it?

    August 7, 2012 at 10:32 am
  22. Steve Bender

    Sharon,

    Crepe myrtle blooms on new growth, so you can cut it to the ground in spring. The only reason I’d do this, however, is if the top looked dead or damaged.

    August 6, 2012 at 2:19 pm
  23. Steve Bender

    Elizabeth,

    Go with a semi-dwarf type, like ‘Early Bird’ (white or lavender), ‘Red Rooster’ (red), ‘Acoma’ (white), ‘Velma’s Royal Delight’ (purple), or one of the Petite series.

    August 6, 2012 at 2:16 pm
  24. Steve Bender

    No, it won’t hurt to prune now.

    August 6, 2012 at 2:05 pm
  25. Elizabeth Boliek

    Hi there. Found your website. Very funny and to the point. I really like that. My husband and i want to plant these beautiful plants/trees. We would like to plant them mostly for privacy and beauty. Would you suggest a dwarf or taller tree? Our fence is about 4 ft. tall and we would like to go to about 6 ft. Thank you.

    August 6, 2012 at 11:52 am
  26. Crepe Myrtle question – Charleston – North Charleston – Mt. Pleasant – Summerville – Goose Creek – City-Data Forum

    [...] been a so so year for crepe myrtles. Don't prune — It's called crepe murder with true gardeners Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step – The Daily South | Your Hub for Southern Culture Yes, don't crepe murder but that I'd consider an extreme pruning. I do swear cutting back our [...]

    August 6, 2012 at 8:54 am
  27. Sandi

    So glad to read your article here. My husband has bugged me to find information on myrtles and I just saved our tree from murder. We will wait till late Winter to do the real trim, however there are one or two so low that they are lying on the ground in our backyard. Have to get those up so the lawn care folks don’t have to run them over. Thanks for the input!!

    August 5, 2012 at 2:10 pm
  28. sharon

    Hello,
    I planted a dwarf crepe myrtle in the spring. Only suppose to get 4-6 feet tall. Right now it’s about 2 feet. So far it looks pretty rough. Our summer has been averaging 105 this year. I live in KS. I heard on the radio today that you can cut your crepe myrtle to the ground in the spring. What are your thoughts on this?
    Thanks, Sharon

    August 4, 2012 at 3:31 pm
  29. Kathy

    I have a white don’t know what kind. It came with the house, close to the house , have to trim from the house . Bought a new limb trimmer last night to reach up high. Was going to do this this morning before we get into triple digit heat today. Will I hurt the tree by pruning so late in year? It has completely lost its shape . It’s a man tree!

    August 4, 2012 at 8:31 am
  30. Jane Freestone

    Can you help me? We have 3 Dynamite crepe myrtles, 4 years old and 8-15 feet high. They are spectacular, but the flowers are so big that when it rains, they become so heavy that they bow down. I just lost limbs on 2 of them. I have the larger limbs tied together with something a little flexible, but only as high as I can reach without a ladder. How do I save them from the next rainstorm?
    Thanks,
    Jane in Maryland

    August 3, 2012 at 7:49 pm
  31. Carla Christensen

    I have a dwarf pink crepe myrtle that has been growing in our yard for four years. It has not bloomed yet this summer and it seemed like it was behind schedule last summer, but finally bloomed before August. I fertilized it in late March, but don’t prune it because I want it to grow a bit bigger. What would cause it not too bloom this year?

    Carla (puzzled in South Carolina)

    August 1, 2012 at 3:22 pm
  32. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Robin,
    Here’s an easy test to see if they need water. Look at them first thing in the morning. If they look wilted, water. If they don’t, don’t. When it’s 100 degrees and sunny, even plants with plenty of moisture will wilt.
    Brittany,
    Lack of pruning isn’t the problem. I’d try fertilizing with tree-shrub fertilizer according to the rate on the label. Water the fertilizer in. If that doesn’t make any difference, it may be that your crepe myrtle is getting too much shade or it doesn’t like where it’s growing. You might have to move it this fall.

    July 16, 2012 at 10:42 am
  33. Brittany

    I have a dark pink crepe myrtle that only puts out a few blooms and not many leaves. I gave it a couple of years thinking it had a bad weather problem, but I am contemplating “crepe murder” to start over and get new branches that will produce. Are there any other options?

    July 14, 2012 at 10:57 pm
  34. Robin

    Ughhhhh!

    July 13, 2012 at 10:07 pm
  35. Robin

    My apologies for the run on words…
    I water every morning , if I don’t by the afternoon the leaves look like they’re dehydrated!
    Oh, and I meant, it’s hitter than Hattie’s here! Sorry!

    July 13, 2012 at 10:07 pm
  36. Robin

    We have planted some 4 foot tall crepe myrtles this year,mans I’m getting conflicting info on watering them. Living in Ft Worth, Tx itsmhottervthan Hattie’s. I,don’t want to over water, butmitmseems if I don’t water early everyday, they’ re limp by the afternoon. Any suggestions?
    Love all your answers by the way. Funny and down right on the mark!
    Robin n Ft Worth, Tx

    July 13, 2012 at 10:05 pm
  37. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Pam,
    Some plants just sucker more than others. What I suggest is looking closely at the point where the suckers sprout from the trunk. It should be a swollen knob. Try cutting off this knob flush with the trunk. Also, don’t wait for suckers to grow. When you see a green bud sprouting on the trunk, just rub it off with your hand.

    July 6, 2012 at 3:57 pm
  38. Pam Hughes

    Two things – yes I am guilty of “murder”. I was following what I saw everyone else do. “Monkey see-Monkey do” I guess. 2nd. I am constantly trying to keep the suckers at the base(ground) under control. Is there something I should be doing differently? If I don’t keep cutting them – then I literally have a bush at the ground level. What do I need to do?

    July 3, 2012 at 1:16 pm
  39. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Vicky,
    If it makes you feel any better, we can’t grow lilacs.
    Bobbi,
    I’m not sure what the white and black stuff is, but it may be lichens which are harmless. As long as your crepes are healthy, I wouldn’t worry about it.

    July 3, 2012 at 10:23 am
  40. Bobbi

    Purchased a home with crepe myrtles, I love them. But, one of mine has some type of white and black stuff on the branches and trunk. Is there a home remedy that you recommend? I am in the South, with lots of 3 digit temps. Thanks for your help in advance.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm
  41. Vcky Jones

    Hey there Mr. Grump… I love reading your blogs You are just too funny fella… Illinois here wsh I could grown these They are beautiful. Love the southern states so much ou have beautiful trees and plants..

    June 30, 2012 at 10:09 am
  42. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Gwen,
    I’m fairly certain that the problems you’re having are due to lack of rain. The only way to fix this is to water deeply if you can. You need to let the water soak into the ground, so that it reaches the roots and just doesn’t wet the surface.

    June 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm
  43. Gwen Norris

    We have a problem with our crepe myrtle tree. We live in South Texas and our tree is losing leaves and has had only about 3 sets of blooms this summer. We haven’t pruned it except for a few low limbs here and there. It is about 16 or 17 yrs. old. Have had almost no rain in a couple of year. Try to water it but doesn’t seem to help the drying of leaves and losing them. Do you think waiting until Jan. or Feb. to prune it right will help? and waiting on a good season of rain? Please help as we don’t want to lose this beauty.
    Thanks.

    June 25, 2012 at 4:43 pm
  44. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Markie,
    I would plant ‘Pink Velour.’ Here’s a link for more info: http://www.greenwoodnursery.com/page.cfm/29781.

    June 10, 2012 at 4:05 pm
  45. Markie

    I’m looking for a pink Myrtle (the color of the Hopi or Pecos) in a taller version that will grow to about 10′ tall – that will be more vertical than wide. Your suggestions will be greatly appreciated!!!

    June 9, 2012 at 2:16 pm
  46. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Nope. No need to cut off the old pods. They have no seeds left in them anyway. They’ll fall off on their own.

    May 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm
  47. Rory

    My crepe myrtle still has the dead flowers and seed pods from last year; it’s now May. Should I cut them off? anything special I should know about how to do that? Thanks!

    May 5, 2012 at 8:51 pm
  48. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Danita,
    Spiders don’t feed on plants. Spider mites do, but they’re the size of ground pepper. More likely, the spiders are there feeding on whatever is really attacking your plants. If the damage is restricted to the new, young foliage, my guess is aphids. You can kill them by spraying the foliage, both upper and lower leaf surfaces, with several drops of liquid detergent mixed into a quart of water.

    May 4, 2012 at 1:50 pm
  49. Danita

    Dear Grumpy, I have just planted my crepe myrtle purchased last summer. They are growing fine. But I keep having some spiders attacking them, esp. the newer growth. What will get rid of these pests? I have tried spraying Ortho pest control a few times. The little creeps don’t seem to mind it. There are 3 different looking spiders. Clear ones, green ones and grey ones.Approx. 1/4 -1″ in length. They seem to be in “spider heaven”. HELP!

    May 3, 2012 at 11:31 am
  50. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    I imagine you have a dwarf crepe myrtle that grows into a mound, rather than a tree. This is very good for growing in a container.

    April 25, 2012 at 1:04 pm

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