Stop! Don't Chop Crepe Myrtles!

Just because your neighbors butcher their crepe myrtles doesn't mean you should too. Here's how to fix past mistakes and prune them right.

Each Saturday morning after football season ends, legions of bored men armed with saws and loppers emerge from their garages to commit "crepe murder." They needlessly reduce majestic crepe myrtles to ugly stumps--in many cases, ruining them forever.

In South Carolina, the Spartanburg Men's Garden Club is working to end the slaughter. Last year, one of its members, Henry Pittman, sent me a copy of the club's excellent brochure, "Crape Myrtles: Four Seasons of Beauty" (yes, I know--they spell it with an "a"). It covers all aspects of selecting, growing, and pruning crepe myrtles. We thought so highly of its advice that we visited Spartanburg to see firsthand what they were talking about so we could tell you.

Lofty Goals

The objectives of pruning a crepe myrtle are to maintain its natural sculptural form, produce strong branches that hold flowers upright, and open up its center to reveal the smooth, multi-toned bark that forms on mature trunks and branches.

Cutting it back to thick stubs each year makes these goals impossible. A graceful tree quickly becomes a fencepost or hat rack. Pretty bark never appears. Each beheaded trunk grows a Medusa-like tangle of spindly whips too weak to hold up flowers.

The Right Way To Prune

For a beautiful plant, follow these guidelines.

  • Prune in late winter. February is ideal.
  • Remove suckers at the base, crossing or rubbing branches, and branches growing inward toward the center of the plant.
  • As the tree grows, gradually remove all side branches from the main trunks up to a height of 5 feet or so.
  • Cut back to another branch, to just above an outward-facing bud on a branch, or to the branch collar (a swollen area where the branch joins the trunk). Never leave lone or clustered stubs.
  • Try to remove unwanted branches before they get thicker than a pencil.
  • It's okay but unnecessary to cut off old seedheads.

Restoring a Butchered Plant

If you've beheaded a big crepe myrtle to within a few feet of the ground (see photo below right), there's only one solution. Punish yourself severely by watching Nancy Grace on TV, and then cut the sorry plant completely to the ground. It will grow back very quickly. The next winter, select three to five well-spaced trunks, and cut off any others at ground level. Follow the instructions from "The Right Way To Prune" above, and you'll have an attractive tree within five years.

But maybe your sin wasn't so acute. You've only rounded off, or "hat-racked," your crepe myrtle, cutting back all of its main branches to about the same height. n this case, follow our four-step process to get beautiful plants.

Finally, a word to you ladies. The minute football season ends next year, treat the man of the house to a tractor pull, a paintball tournament, or a game of X-treme welding. Don't let him near the saws and loppers.

Excuses for Crepe Murder

Excuse: My neighbors all do it.

Rebuttal: So if the neighbors start keeping Nile crocodiles in their pools, you'll be on the next plane to Africa?

Excuse: The landscapers do it every winter.

Rebuttal: They do it only because they need a paycheck.

Excuse: The dang thing gets too big.

Rebuttal: You planted the wrong crepe myrtle. Selections such as 'Victor,' 'Acoma,' 'Hopi,' 'Tonto,' 'Zuni,' and the Petite Series grow to 12 feet tall or less.

"Stop! Don't Chop!" is from the February 2007 issue of Southern Living.

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