Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

February 24, 2009 | By | Comments (599)

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. Pruning Crepe Myrtles (the right way) | Stickle Landscape Management

    [...] Not everyone has the right answer to everything. So when you think about copying other people’s pruning habits towards their plants, do not think you are doing nature any good. For instance, many people make the mistake in how to properly prune a Crepe Myrtle that’s grown too large for your liking. The problem is, there is know proper way. If you have a tree that you think is too large for where it is located, you need to think about transplanting it to a better spot. Pruning is only an act taken to enhance the appearance and growth of the plant. To read more about how to properly prune a Crepe Myrtle tree, click here. [...]

    February 17, 2013 at 7:47 pm
  2. Frances Luse

    I have 2 CM next to my house, they are 10 years old and about 15 or more feet tall. about 5 feet or so from house. How do I tell what type they are? I don’t want them to damage my foundation….I’ve never murdered them, well until last week when I lopped off two branches… Will reconsider cutting the rest. Should I have them removed to spare my foundations?

    February 12, 2013 at 8:30 pm
  3. Claudia

    Help! Once the 2 feet of snow cleared with todays rain, we discovered that some inner trunks of my beautiful 10 year old crepe myrtle have broken at about 4 feet from the ground (the rest had grown to around 15 feet high…..any advice?

    February 11, 2013 at 2:22 pm
  4. Jerri

    I have 8 dwarf crape myrtles as a border, I think they are red razzle dazzle but I;m not sure. They vary in height. I fertilize in the spring and they are mulched. I have never pruned them. They are not filled out and healthy looking like a lot I’ve seen. I don’t know what I am doing wrong. I live in North Carolina so climate should not be a problem. Can you tell me how to get them to grow fuller and to look healthier?

    February 8, 2013 at 7:32 pm
  5. Steve Bender

    Doug,
    Have no fear! Your crepe myrtle will grow back quickly! I don’t like the idea of the severe pruning, though. Can you move them so that they won’t interfere with the lines?

    February 8, 2013 at 1:30 pm
  6. Doug Massey

    I copied what my neighbor did a few years ago when he pruned his crepes. But his trees had thick trunk /branches from the ground up. He cut them at about three or four feet off the ground and they grew back very nicely. The two I have were skinny trunks that didn’t sprout until five or even six feet off the ground. They were going up instead of out and even making contact with the power lines. I just cut them off at knee length and fear I may have gone too far. Two stumps is what I have now. Will they revive and flourish?

    February 7, 2013 at 5:42 pm
  7. Charla Green

    Thanks for the step-by-step guide! I just moved into my first home which has a crepe myrtle in the front of my home. It’s grown pretty high, so I was going to prune it a bit. My realtor suggested the “crepe murder” when I expressed concerns about it growing above the roof. I’m glad I looked this up before I followed her advice!
    – Charla

    February 5, 2013 at 2:44 pm
  8. Lonnie Workman

    Steve, thanks for the info. I will be trimming mine per your instructions after lunch here in central North Carolina. I’ve been guilty of “Crepe Murder”. Height is a problem with mine as it goes up into the power lines.

    To Carole West–> Read the whole article online until you see the answer you are looking for, then copy and paste into your word processor (MS Word, Wordpad, or Notepad). Then you can print only what you need to. No wasted paper.

    February 5, 2013 at 8:44 am
  9. Carole West

    The next time you write A article on how to trim Crepe Myrtles how about dropping all of the comments from others asking and answer the question . How to correctly trim Crepe Myrtles.I have wasted 20 pieces of paper to get to your answer. your answer is in the very last of all the comments.. Yes you are correct about Murdering them by the improper trimming .
    Thanks for you information.

    February 4, 2013 at 8:28 am
  10. Steve Bender

    Wade,
    I’d prune them the way you describe, cutting them back to where they meet another branch or the trunk.

    February 1, 2013 at 12:29 pm
  11. Steve Bender

    Clint,
    Are both crepe myrtles the same kind? Hope so — otherwise they will always look different. In any case, you might try pruning the taller one to match the height of the other. Hopefully, this will produce fuller growth.

    February 1, 2013 at 12:27 pm
  12. Steve Bender

    Kathy,

    Winter, spring, and fall are good times to transplant.

    February 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm
  13. Steve Bender

    Gary,
    In the next few years, trim these new branches to grow up and out. Remove any side branches that grow inward towards the center of the tree.

    February 1, 2013 at 12:23 pm
  14. Are You Ready For Spring? – The Daily South | Your Hub for Southern Culture

    [...] cut off all the blooms. However, plants that bloom in summer on the current year’s growth (crepe myrtle, chaste tree, gardenia, ‘Limelight’ hydrangea, ‘Knockout’ rose, [...]

    January 31, 2013 at 9:01 am
  15. Wade Taylor

    Steve,
    We are at least five years overdue on pruning a fairly mature crepe myrtle. I have two branches on a couple of main trunks that now extend at least five feet above the rest of the canopy. The rest of the branches and foliage are fairly thick and could possibly conceal if these were cut out. Do I let mother nature take its course and let them grow toward the sky outpacing their brethren, or do I cut them back to the dividing point on the trunk?

    Thanks,
    Wade

    January 30, 2013 at 4:20 pm
  16. Clint

    I have two crepe myrtles on either side of my drive way, they don’t look like they’ve ever been murdered but the branches/leaves/blooms are very sparse. They also look very dissimilar in shape. One has a single trunk and the other has 3. I would like to prune them to have a more symmetrical look up top. What is the right amount of pruning that would create more fullness and shorten one that is very tall?

    January 30, 2013 at 9:28 am
  17. in the garden – Mrs. Hines Class

    [...] It’s a good time to prune your crepe myrtle trees, if you haven’t already.  Be careful not to commit crepe murder. [...]

    January 30, 2013 at 5:42 am
  18. kathy

    When should you transplant crepes myrtles?

    January 27, 2013 at 4:20 pm
  19. Gary

    Like Margaret my crepes have had 19 years of being murdered. Mine has the big knots, bigger then two fists. I’m planning on cutting off the knots and then follow your directions but can you leave say two or three branches once they start coming out this Spring? Then what do you do the following year if anything.

    January 26, 2013 at 2:29 pm
  20. Steve Bender

    Frances,
    It seems that new crepe myrtles come along about once every 15 minutes. I’m not familiar with ‘Lacy,’ but I’m sure I will be soon.

    January 25, 2013 at 10:46 am
  21. Frances Cheshire

    I have a ‘Lacy’ crepe myrtle,its pink with edges that are trimmed in white..has anyone else seen these?

    January 25, 2013 at 6:52 am
  22. Steve Bender

    Dorothea,
    I do not think the “weed” on your crepe myrtles is a weed at all, but a harmless plant called a lichen. It uses the trunks and branches solely for support and does not steal water or food from the tree. The reason you see so much of it is that it needs sun and sparsely branched or unhealthy trees let in more sun. Instead of committing crepe murder, I suggest removing any dead branches now, cutting them back to the trunk or where they meet other branches (don’t leave stubs). To determine if a branch is dead, scratch the bark. If you see green underneath, the branch is alive. If you see brown, the branch is dead. Then fertilize your crepe myrtles this spring with a tree/shrub fertilizer at the rate specified on the label.

    January 23, 2013 at 2:10 pm
  23. Tina

    Thank you so much for your great advice!!! This year we will be ready for the black mold. Thank you!!

    January 21, 2013 at 5:11 pm
  24. Dorothea

    We just moved into an older home with 3 crepe myrtles. They are very tall and ragged and all 3 of them have a weed of some sort growing on the branches. They barely bloom any flowers because of all the “weed” I’m able to pull of the weed but it releases a powder. I’m guessing it’s a fungus but in order ot get rid of it I may need to commit crepe murder. Any advice?

    January 21, 2013 at 3:54 pm
  25. Steve Bender

    Katie & Tina,

    Branches should not be allowed to touch the house, so feel free to shorten those. I have a tall crepe myrtle in front of my house. I have removed all the side branches on the main trunks growing towards the house and train the plant to grow basically upright and out towards the lawn. The black mold is a fungus that grows on sweet, sticky honeydew secreted by feeding aphids. If you kill the aphids, you won’t have the mold. Try spraying your plants in early summer according to label directions with horticultural oil. Be sure to wet the undersides of the leaves as well as the tops.

    January 21, 2013 at 9:10 am
  26. Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step – The Daily South | Your Hub for Southern Culture « Tim's Whaddaya Know

    [...] Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step – The Daily South | Your Hub for Southern Culture. [...]

    January 20, 2013 at 11:20 pm
  27. How To Prune A Crape Myrtle Step-by-Step – Plant Care Today

    [...] Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step – The Daily South [...]

    January 19, 2013 at 8:17 pm
  28. Natalie Ann Ashton

    Mr. Bender I am sooo glad I came across your advice on crepe myrtle pruning I have 5 of them, I bought them at the end of season and they were very small but affordable, I havent
    pruned them in the four years they have been growing. My neighbor has murdered his every year I almost followed in his footsteps thank-you for saving me !!!!
    Ann from Wild & Wonderful West Virginia !

    January 19, 2013 at 10:21 am
  29. Tina

    Hi. We have 3 giant beautiful pink crepe myrtles next to our house. They are touch the roof line. We don’t want to dig them up but want to cut a bit of the tops off. I know this is a no no but was is the alternative? They have a beautiful shape and bark. And our crepe myrtles in front of our house get a black mold on them. What can we do about that? It happens every year. Thanks.

    January 18, 2013 at 3:27 pm
  30. Steve Bender

    Kasey,
    You can do this!!!!!

    Ann,
    Your crepe has officially been murdered. But don’t despair. If you prune it from now on the way I describe above, it will regain its beauty and bloom just fine.

    Katie,
    Yes, you can prune your crepes the way you describe. It’s never good to let any branch touch the house. The canopies will grow back quickly.

    January 14, 2013 at 1:54 pm
  31. Katie

    Thank you so much for this article. We just bought a house with 4 mature crepe myrtles that have been well cared for and have a lovely natural shape. One, however, touches the house and another is a bit younger and smaller. Is it ok to cut them back all to the same approximate height and let them grow back through the spring? My husband worries that the canopy won’t come back.

    January 13, 2013 at 7:17 am
  32. Ann

    My yard man just pruned all my CM …..they dont have knots but are cut to stumps, with no thin branches exstending. I have never had a landscaper do this before….is this murder? My oldest has always bloomed beautifully ..am I going to have problems this year?

    January 11, 2013 at 12:27 pm
  33. Kasey

    This will be the first year that I haven’t committed “crepe murder.” I can’t wait to see the results! Thank you so much for the advice…

    January 10, 2013 at 8:25 am
  34. Annie

    Thank you so very much for your excellent advice. I need to prune mine quite a bit. Will carefully follow your advice.

    January 5, 2013 at 9:16 pm
  35. Steve Bender

    Kathy,
    Three feet from the house is way too close if you have crepe myrtles like ‘Natchez’ that grow 30 feet tall. I would definitely try to move them to where they have more room and won’t impact the house. It’ll be a big job, but you can do it now. You can cut them back before you dig to make the job easier. Just don’t murder them after they’ve been transplanted.

    January 4, 2013 at 12:43 pm
  36. Crepe Myrtle Pruning – GardenMash

    [...] out http://thedailysouth.southernliving.com/2009/02/24/what-concerns-p/ to see Grumpy Gardener Steve Bender give some great, humorous advice on how to properly prune your [...]

    January 2, 2013 at 11:40 am
  37. F. Miranda

    Hate to say it but I much prefer the crepe murder look! I tried it the other way and for years my crepe myrtle looked leggy and unhealthy. I was going to cut it down thinking it was just too old and cut the limbs way back to look like your picture and WOW! It made a nice big bushy, colorful tree. I hadn’t seen that in 15 years!

    December 23, 2012 at 10:32 am
  38. Kathy Albertson

    I bought a house that’s 15 years old, and former owners planted four crepe myrtles about 3 feet from the side of the house. They are so large that I’m not sure if they are able to be saved if I have someone come to remove. I’d love to replant in the back yard if possible. Any advice is welcome.
    Kathy

    December 22, 2012 at 11:29 am
  39. Steve Bender

    John,
    Only follow the instructions for Margaret if you’ve already murdered your plant and created knots. Otherwise, leave it pretty much alone. Miniature crepes need little pruning, other than to remove dead wood and thin out the centers a little bit.

    Tressa,

    Your discriminating tastes are of the highest order!

    December 20, 2012 at 10:32 am
  40. Tressa

    The post was nothing short of fantastic. I am consistently right
    after your weblog and no energy of mine is lost. The last portion
    of your discussion supplied much value to me. Really, I’ve been looking into online to acquire this sort of information. Who’d have believed I’ll obtain it here? Keep writing. You are the finest!

    December 18, 2012 at 11:21 am
  41. John McNally

    Have miniature variety. Should we follow same directions as for Margaret?

    December 18, 2012 at 8:07 am
  42. James W McElwee

    Steve – great advice and guidance. Pruned this morning and am confident of result. Others had lopped them off over the years, but the airing out (thinning) and eliminating cross branches looks like I might get a more vertical result in the spring.
    Jim Magnolia, MS

    December 16, 2012 at 10:58 am
  43. Steve Bender

    Margaret,
    Cut off the knots now. Next spring, lots of shoots will sprout from the ends of the cut branches. Select one to let grow from each and then cut off all of the others. Keep this up and in a few years, you won’t be able to tell where the knots were.

    December 13, 2012 at 3:19 pm
  44. Joycelyn F. Lee

    Thanks for the lesson on pruning Crepe Myrtles. That is an excellent “Garden Talk” topic for The Lafayette Parish Master Gardeners in Louisiana. Garden a talk is held on a Saturday morning of each month and lasts approximately one hour. It includes hands on activities and printed information/instructions.

    December 11, 2012 at 10:51 am
  45. Margaret

    My husband has already committed Crepe Murder. We havethebig knots. Should we just wait until next year to fix this? Should I cut the “knots” off? Thanks

    December 9, 2012 at 10:46 am
  46. Gymgirl

    Thanks!

    December 7, 2012 at 2:26 pm
  47. Steve Bender

    Gymgirl,
    Assuming you don’t have a dwarf crepe myrtle, what you do is prune off all side branches coming from 3-4 trunks up to a height of 4 feet or so. You can do this now. Then just let the top grow.

    December 7, 2012 at 2:23 pm
  48. Nancy

    Very helpful. Now on the same note of pruning, how do you prune an orange tree?

    December 7, 2012 at 4:55 am
  49. Gymgirl

    How do you turn what looks like a Crepe Myrtle bush into a tree?

    December 4, 2012 at 3:09 pm
  50. Steve Bender

    Gail,
    What you’re digging up aren’t really volunteers, but suckers growing from the big crepe myrtle. Suckers usually grow after the roots have been damaged. That’s why it’s a good idea to avoid cutting the roots of a crepe myrtle. If I were you, I’d just cut off the suckers as they appear. If there are no more injuries, they’ll decrease in number over time.

    December 4, 2012 at 2:20 pm

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