Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (571)

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. Marsha

    I literally LOL’d @ your humor. Thanks for the info & some laughs.

    December 3, 2012 at 9:54 am
  2. Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step « So Simply Stephanie

    [...] Reblogged from The Daily South: [...]

    December 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm
  3. Stephanie

    Reblogged this on So Simply Stephanie and commented:
    I found this article last year while looking up info on pruning my Crape Myrtles. It’s a great guide for both new and experienced gardeners! Reblogging it from Southern Living for those of you who like to garden like me!

    November 30, 2012 at 9:50 am
  4. gail

    Steve,
    I have two volunteer Crepe Myrtles that popped up right beside my front sidewalk. I tried digging them up but they keep coming back. Just how far do those roots from the mother tree travel? I have a very large Crepe Myrtle on the other side of the driveway (which is about a car length and a half from the volunteers). At times I think it would be far easier to remove the sidewalk and relocate it. A new volunteer appeared alongside the sidewalk this spring and his days are numbered now.

    November 27, 2012 at 4:48 pm
  5. Steve Bender

    Even rednecks can learn something.

    November 27, 2012 at 9:37 am
  6. RedneckRosarian

    Reblogged this on The Redneck Rosarian and commented:
    Crepe Murder Must Stop! Offenders, you know who you are…. read on….

    November 25, 2012 at 11:07 am
  7. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    John,
    They’re too small to prune now. Wait until they get about 4-5 tall before you start training them into tree form.

    November 21, 2012 at 8:05 am
  8. John

    I have 4 mrytles that are about 3 feet tall.Do I prune them now or wait till next fall?

    November 17, 2012 at 9:51 am
  9. 10 Plants You Should Never Prune in Fall – The Daily South | Your Hub for Southern Culture

    [...] * Extreme pruning of crepe myrtle called “crepe murder” will not and cannot be tolerated by Grumpy. To see how to correctly prune this iconic plant, read “Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-By-Step.” [...]

    November 11, 2012 at 7:00 am
  10. Gymgirl

    Thanks, Steve!

    November 6, 2012 at 3:18 pm
  11. Steve Bender

    Gymgirl,
    The best time to move them is when they are dormant (leafless) in fall or winter. They’ll make thick trunks on their own if you just prune each to 4-5 trunks and cut off the rest at ground level. Also remove all side branches on the trunks that are left up to 4-5 feet at this time.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:13 pm
  12. Gymgirl

    Steve,
    I have a two small (8′-9′) crepe myrtles that I need to relocate. The branches on one tree are long and wispy, and I’m not seeing a thick, main trunk, to speak of. When is the best time to move them, and how do I get from the willowy growth to a couple of main trunks on the one tree?

    November 6, 2012 at 10:10 am
  13. Steve Bender

    Joyce,
    Sorry I’ve taken so long to answer, but I’ve been on vacation. I don’t think you need to do any pruning until next year. It’s too small. When it gets 3-4 feet tall, then begin the steps above.

    John,
    Cutting the roots isn’t a good idea. I’d prune off the part that is in the way of the path. The tree will then grow upright like before.

    October 29, 2012 at 4:57 am
  14. John LaHam

    Hello Steve,
    I have a crepe myrtle< white flower, about 20 ft tall and in beautiful condition. A strong sorm forced the tree to tilt over to the point that it imposes on a walk path. My first thought was to dig up the soil around it and try to raise it back up straight. However the roots are well established, thick and rigid. Is there a safe point at which I might cut the root back to allow the movement ove the tree? Thanks, John

    October 21, 2012 at 10:04 am
  15. Joyce

    Hi Steve,

    I have a new crepe myrtle presently less than 15 inches tall. When should I do the first pruning? This is my first crepe myrtle tree. Can you give me any tips or other information that will help me encourage proper growth right from the start? Thank you!

    October 14, 2012 at 3:01 pm
  16. Steve Bender

    Pam,
    Most of the new dark-leaved crepe myrtles are semi-dwarf and bushy. I think ‘Black Diamond’ may be like that. Not sure you can prune it into a small tree, but you can try.

    Barbara,
    Assuming that they are in full sun, one factor may be hot, dry weather. Another is that there are lots of different varieties out there and newer ones often out-bloom the older ones.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:50 am
  17. Barbara Meyers

    We have 30 year old crepe myrtle that are not getting the blooms that other trees are getting. What do I do to have more blooming?

    October 7, 2012 at 1:52 pm
  18. Pam Kallenberger

    I saw a new variety at Home Depot , it’s called black diamond. Do you know if it can be pruned to be a tree?

    October 5, 2012 at 6:54 pm
  19. Gardening Perspective – Thrifty or Cheap? « From My Backyard
    October 3, 2012 at 5:36 pm
  20. Steve Bender

    Henry,
    What you’re contemplating is an act I call “crepe murder” — cutting the tree back to thick, ugly stubs. This will not look very pretty. What you might want to do instead (although this will sound crazy) is cut the whole thing to the ground this fall or winter. In the spring, lots of new shoots will sprout from the stump. Select 4-5 of these that are well-spaced and cut off the others. These will grow fast. Prune them with hand pruners to control their height and spread as they grow.

    Dorrette,
    I would wait until early spring to transplant them. You don’t need to pot them.

    October 2, 2012 at 3:38 pm
  21. Dorrette

    I have two little (about 12″) crepe myrtle plants that are off shoots of a 5 year old plant. When is the best time to transplant the smaller plants to another location? Should they be potted until they are more mature to return to the ground? Dee

    October 1, 2012 at 11:17 am
  22. lil

    We have 2 in our yard. We never knew how to trim them, so we left them alone. Now they are big and beautiful while the neighbors are small and wimpy. Whew! Thanks for the info!

    October 1, 2012 at 12:14 am
  23. Henry Stotts

    I bought an old house 5 years ago and with it in the yard is a crape myrtle that has been there forever. It is now a tree. It is 30 to 40 feet tall . I want to prune it and will have to use a chain saw most likely. It is 1 October now. When can I prune this? I want to cut it back enough so I can manage it better.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm
  24. Steve Bender

    Kate,
    I can understand why you’re unhappy. Do you know the name of the crepe myrtle?

    Jana,
    I prefer to do this in winter after the leaves have dropped. However, there really isn’t any harm in doing it now.

    September 29, 2012 at 6:26 am
  25. Jana

    Steve ~ I am wondering the best time to, as one of my friends says, “limb up” a Crape Myrtle. As seen in an earlier post, this should be done in late winter. I am working with a group and they think we should “limb up” the Crape Myrtle now. Any help and suggestions would be wonderful! Thank you, Jana in Nashville, TN

    September 27, 2012 at 10:00 pm
  26. Kate

    About 2 years ago I bought what I believed to be a dwarf crepe myrtle because I wanted to plant it in front of a much larger shrub in my flower bed. So far, it has only bloomed on ONE branch…and that branch is 2 feet higher than the rest of the plant and sticks up right in the middle. Last year I cut it off thinking I would never see it again, but it has retuned this year…with the only bloom! I might just have to transplant it. What do you think?

    September 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm
  27. Steve Bender

    Becky & Claudia & Jeanie,
    The black stuff is called black mold. It grows on the sticky honeydew secreted by aphids feeding on the leaves. To get rid of it, you must kill the aphids first. Spray your tree according to label directions with horticultural oil. Wet both upper and lower leaf surfaces.

    September 26, 2012 at 11:03 am
  28. Jeanie

    Where is the answer about what to do about the black stuff on crepe myrtle leaves?

    September 26, 2012 at 9:42 am
  29. Claudia Bruno

    My crepe myrtle also has black on the leaves. We are wondering if it is due to a mold? Please offer some advice.

    September 25, 2012 at 3:07 pm
  30. becky

    My crepe myrtle leaves have black stuff on them and it has now spread to another near by Bush. Help!

    September 24, 2012 at 7:29 pm
  31. Steve Bender

    Shasta,
    I would say your plant looks exactly like it’s supposed to — a multitrunked tree. If you want it lower and bushier, you can shorten the main trunks this winter, but try to cut back to a side branch and don’t leave thick stubs.

    Dan,
    Just wait until October and then dig and transplant them.

    Martha,
    Go to my Grumpy Gardener blog and type “crepe myrtle” into the search box. You’ll see a number of stories. Click on the one that’s titled, “Stop! Don’t Chop!” You’ll see instructions there.

    Eileen,
    Different varieties of crepe myrtles bloom longer than others. It’s just the way they are. Nothing you can do about it, except remove the green seed pods before they turn brown in hopes of getting a second bloom.

    Dink,
    Too much shade could be the problem, but it’s more likely all the pruning you have done. When big crepe myrtles get hacked so far back, they panic and put all their energy into growing new branches and leaves, not flowers. Don’t prune them again this year and you’ll probably get more blooms next year.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:00 pm
  32. Dink Bowden

    The spring of 2011 I cut back 3 of my crate myrtles which were about 20 or 30 feet tall. Only a few branches ever bloomed any way. They have grown back just as tall and still few flowers. Also I murdered 3 that was about 10 feet tall they have grown back just as tall, one has thin branches that hanger to much and have no blooms. Two of the 10 feet tall ones have not bloom as much as I would expect. I see some in town that is covered with flowers. Could to much shade be one of my problems?

    September 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm
  33. Eileen Belan

    I have a beautiful Crepe Myrtle in my front yard, several of the homes on the street have them as well. Why does my Crepe Myrtle bloom beautifully at the same time all the others around bloom but my flowers are dead and gone at least two weeks sooner than any of the other trees? I have lived here two years and it happened both years.

    September 20, 2012 at 12:48 pm
  34. D. Moroney

    My dwarf crepe myrtle, which had transplant shock, has survived and has lots of new leaf growth already – in less than a month. Love my crepe myrtles!

    September 18, 2012 at 8:27 pm
  35. Martha Farley

    What can I do to fix a previous Crepe Murder?

    September 18, 2012 at 8:17 pm
  36. Dan and Donna

    We transplanted a crepe myrtle now a year later we have sprouts that have come up and bloomed. How do we go about transplanting these new little crepe myrtle trees?

    September 17, 2012 at 8:39 am
  37. shasta

    Hello,
    I am in search of instruction for how to turn my thin mertle into a thicker healthy looking tree…it is technically a tree noe but has 2 main trunks with very little coming off of them until about 15ft up…..is there a way to get it thick and bushy again or it it lost??? I can’t add pics if needed

    September 17, 2012 at 3:09 am
  38. Steve Bender

    Susie,
    Sprouts often come from roots that have been cut, so don’t dig around a crepe myrtle. If you have an existing crepe myrtle, so can’t spray the sprouts, because the weedkiller would be taken back to the mother plant. In such a case, you can only cut the sprouts off. If there is no mother plant, spray the sprouts according to label directions with Roundup.

    Keith,
    What I meant was leaving the pods on won’t keep the plant from blooming next year. However, if you cut them off as soon as they form, you can often get a second bloom during the current year.

    Debbie,
    I think your ‘Twilight’ dried out at some point. Keep it watered and it may recover.

    September 14, 2012 at 7:21 am
  39. Keith

    I know you said the seed pods don’t effect blooms however (maybe because I am in central Florida), I have been able to keep my in bloom through mid Sept. By tip pruning the dying blooms and seed pods.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:56 pm
  40. Susie

    I have sprouts coming up in unwanted places from my crepe myrtle. Please recomment a way to get rid of them. Thanks very much.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:55 pm
  41. Steve Bender

    Laura,
    It sounds like the ‘Twilight’ dried up at some point. Keep it watered and it may recover.

    September 10, 2012 at 2:50 pm
  42. Laura dennis

    my twilight crepe myrtle I bought and planted two weeks ago along with another red, the red is already blooming while the twiight looks bad brown on ends of leaves and all flowers that were on it are now dead. WE have high 90s in direct sun, I water a lot what can i do

    September 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm
  43. Steve Bender

    Debbie,
    Wait to transplant until it drops all of its leaves this fall. If it’s already up to the second floor, you may have to cut it back to make the move manageable. Try to get a root ball that is 18-24 inches in diameter. If the job is too big for you, you might hire a yard man to do it.

    September 7, 2012 at 12:54 pm
  44. Debbie

    How does one transplant a crepe myrtle? I had no idea it would become a tree when I planted it about 4 years ago from a pot. Now it reaches the second story window and is too close to the house.

    September 6, 2012 at 3:45 pm
  45. Steve Bender

    Dennis,

    Prune back the broken branches to a leaf, side branch, or the trunk. You can also prune of some of the blooms to lighten the load on the branch.

    September 4, 2012 at 10:28 am
  46. Steve Bender

    Angela,
    I agree with you. The crepe myrtle variety planted grows too big to be planted so close to the house. You can either “murder” it each year (which will look awful) or transplant it to somewhere else. In its place, plant a semi-dwarf crepe myrtle, like ‘Early Bird’ (part of our Southern Living Plant Collection. It will never reach the soffit.

    September 4, 2012 at 10:26 am
  47. Dennis

    Steve, what to do when it rains on fullly bloomed plant and the limbs break.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:56 pm
  48. Angela

    Hi Steve. My husband and I recently bought a new house and it appears to me that someone picked the wrong type of crepe myrtle to plant in the flower bed in front of the house! It’s about 11 foot tall and has dark pink flowers. It definitely needs to be pruned. I like the plant but I don’t know how much taller it is going to get. The house was built in ’03 and I bet this plant has been here for about that long but I’m not really sure. Is there any hope of maintaining this beautiful plant when the trunk is literally 2 feet from the side of the house and the height has pushed up beneath the soffit and beyond the level of our roof?

    August 30, 2012 at 8:09 pm
  49. Steve Bender

    Liz,

    A crepe myrtle that size isn’t too big to transplant. Wait to do this until after it drops all of its leaves in fall.

    August 29, 2012 at 12:49 pm
  50. Steve Bender

    Way to go, Barbara! Everyone should have a beautiful crepe myrtle! I think what I would do is let the plant finish blooming. Then prune off all of the round, green seeds pods plus about a foot off the end of each branch. This should lighten the weight and help the branches stand back up.

    August 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm

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