Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To properly prune a mature crepe myrtle, you need three 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.
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.
More Crepe Murder Stuff
It’s the high crime of horticulture–the senseless, annual chopping back of beautiful crepe myrtles. Drive through any Southern neighborhood in early spring and, before long, you’ll encounter a spiritually fulfilled suburbanite, pruning saw in hand and a pile of crepe myrtle branches on the ground.
Why do well-intentioned gardeners keep repeating this crime? Some people think they need to prune off old seed heads to have blooms the following year. This is absolutely false. Others hack back these plants to keep them from getting too big. These folks need to remember that crepe myrtles are small trees, not foundation shrubs. If the plants seem to need pruning every other week to keep them from covering the windows or walk, they’re planted in the wrong place. Finally, crepe murder is a copycat crime. A lot of people engage in it because they see their neighbors doing it.
People shorten crepe myrtles by six feet or more, turning beautiful trunks into thick, ugly stubs. Repeated pruning to the same point creates gnarled, knobby “knuckles” on the ends of the trunks. A thicket of long, weak, whiplike branches then sprouts from each knuckle. These whips are too weak to support the flowers and hang straight down like cooked spaghetti.
Find out the mature height of a selection before planting it. If your crepe myrtle grows too big for its spot, move it to where it has more room. Or replace it with a dwarf or semidwarf selection. Prune only to maintain natural form. Select four or five well-spaced main trunks; remove any others at ground level. Train these trunks to grow upward and outward from the base of the plant. As they grow taller, gradually remove all side branches up to a height of four to five feet. This exposes the smooth, handsome bark. Early each spring, remove weak, spindly growth and all the branches that are growing in toward the center of the plant. Prune large branches back to a crotch. Never leave thick stubs.
Quick Pruning Tip For Crepe Myrtles
Remove branches that are too close together or that cross or rub each other. It is important not to prune the tops of crepe myrtle trees to make them bloom. Topping may yield larger flowers but does not increase the overall volume of blooms. Extreme topping often results in weak growth that tends to bend of break in summer rains.
Houseflies are the dumbest living things on Earth, literally incapable of learning anything, which makes me wonder sometimes if houseflies equipped with pruners have been savaging our neighborhood’s crepe myrtles. No matter how many times I tell folks not to chop their crepe myrtles into big, ugly stumps each spring, they do it anyway, maiming the beautiful trunks and ruining the natural treelike form. But perhaps “crepe murder” is a matter of taste, not intelligence. If so, here is a pruning task everyone can agree on. You know how a crepe myrtle typically sprouts a thicket of suckers at the base each spring? Reach down now, and pull them off at ground level. That will keep your crepe myrtle from turning into a thick, unkempt shrub. It will also prove to the world that you’re not a housefly. For most of us, that’s a good thing. — Steve Bender
When to Buy Crepe Myrtles
Select these trees while they are in bloom. Remember, they can vary greatly in size and bloom colors. Choose the right size for your landscape to help avoid the ultimate Southern gardening sin, “crepe murder” (severely pruning your tree to just a few sticks and ruining its natural form). Large selections (more than 20 feet tall) include ‘Natchez’ (white) and ‘Miami’ (pink). Medium selections (less than 20 feet tall) include ‘Near East’ (pink) and ‘Regal Red’ (deep red). Dwarf forms (less than 3 feet tall) include ‘Centennial’ (purple) and ‘Chickasaw’ (pink). Select a sunny location, and remember to mulch and water well to ease your tree into the landscape. Container-grown trees are easy to transport and transition into the garden well.
FYI: Crepe Myrtles in the Fall
Blaze into autumn with summer’s favorite tree.
When people think of crepe myrtles, they envision warm summer days and pink, red, lavender, and white flower clusters sagging in the sun. But look at these classic trees in fall, and you might be surprised. Brilliant blooms will be replaced by orange, red, and yellow foliage for an outstanding autumn show.
Color Through the Seasons
Crepe myrtles have rounded, light green leaves that emerge in the spring. As the weather warms, the foliage hardens off and turns dark green. Then, when the temperatures drop in the fall, leaves gradually transform from green to sparkling fall hues. Many gardeners select crepe myrtles by bloom colors, but you can also choose a plant by its fall foliage (see chart below).
Now is the perfect time to plant these beautiful trees, which come in many colors and sizes to fit your needs and space. ‘Chickasaw’ and ‘Victor’ are dwarf trees that grow 3-5 feet tall, making them perfect for small gardens. ‘Acoma,’ ‘Hopi,’ and ‘Zuni’ are small trees and will grow 7 to 10 feet high. These can be planted in tight areas where you want a tree but have little space. Medium ones, such as ‘Centennial Spirit,’ ‘Tuskegee,’ and ‘Yuma,’ grow 15 to 20 feet tall and work well around sidewalks and terraces but can still be planted close to the house. Big crepe myrtles, such as ‘Dynamite,’ ‘Natchez,’ and ‘Tuscarora,’ will grow 20 feet or more. They make excellent street trees and can be used in large yards. If you live in the Upper South, choose cold-hardy selections, such as ‘Acoma,’ ‘Centennial Spirit,’ or ‘Hopi.’
Crepe myrtles need full sun to perform well. They will grow in shade, but blooms will be sparse, and plants will get leggy. These hardy trees have few pest or disease problems, and they require little water and fertilizer.
Also, crepe myrtles need minimal pruning. Some gardeners top them annually, but this ruins their natural shape and beauty. Remove the sucker growth that sometimes appears around the base. Only prune to shape trees or to take out any cross branching. In the winter, you can remove old seedpods by clipping the tips of branches.
Summer blooms and fall colors make crepe myrtles a garden favorite. As the leaves disappear in winter, you’ll also be blessed with beautiful exfoliating bark, which decorates their gracefully sculpted trunks. For year-round interest, remember this Southern classic. Plant one now, and watch your tree change with the seasons. — Charlie Thigpen
CHALK UP A WIN OVER ALKALINE SOIL WITH CREPE MYRTLES
Not all soils in the South pass the acid test. Some turn oak trees yellow and cause the leaves of azaleas and gardenias to become yellow between the veins. These soils do this because they’re alkaline.
What’s alkaline soil? It’s soil with a pH above the neutral point of 7 (a pH below 7 is considered acid). It typically occurs in regions with sparse rainfall, such as West and North Texas and western Oklahoma. But it also occurs where beds of ancient limestone lie just beneath the surface. This is why people often refer to alkaline soil as “limy” or “chalky.” Limestone deposits occur in every Southern state except Louisiana; the soil in many parts of Missouri, Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida is alkaline.
Alkaline soil affects plants by increasing the availability of some soil nutrients while holding back on others. For example, alkaline soil supplies plants with plenty of calcium and magnesium. But it’s stingy with zinc, manganese, and sulfur. These shortfalls can stunt certain plants. The major nutrient most commonly deficient in high pH soil is iron. Lack of iron causes chlorosis (yellow leaves with green veins). Severe chlorosis eventually kills plants.
WATCH: What's Wrong With My Crepe Myrtle? 4 Common Problems
To determine for sure whether your soil is alkaline, have it tested. You’ll find simple soil-test kits at garden centers, nurseries, and home supply stores. If you discover your soil is indeed alkaline, you have two options. The first is to completely replace the existing soil with acid soil, so you can grow acid-loving plants. But this is laborious and expensive and seldom succeeds over time. A far better solution is simply to select plants that like alkaline soil. There are lots to choose from and many are carefree, drought-tolerant native plants.
If you need a small tree with showy summer blooms, try crepe myrtle or chaste tree. Both tolerate drought and are easy to grow.