How To Prune A Crepe Myrtle Correctly

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.

Crepe Myrtle
Photo: Ngoc Minh Ngo / Getty Images

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. If you live in the South, chances are you’ve seen these eyesores on every block in your neighborhood—and maybe you’re even guilty of committing an act of murder yourself.

I’m always taken aback at people’s obsession with pruning these plants since it should only happen on rare occasions. Read on to learn when and why you should take clippers to your crepe myrtle and how to do it the right way.

Why Prune a Crepe Myrtle?

The objectives of pruning a crepe myrtle—or crape myrtle if you prefer—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.

Before cutting anything, spend some time studying your plant so you know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish and then cut conservatively. After all, you can always go back and cut more. Generally my objective is to maintain well-spaced main trunks with handsome bark and thin out the center to permit accessible sunlight and air penetration. The branch spacing is correct if a bird can easily fly through the center of your crepe myrtle.

Essential Pruning Tools

To correctly prune a mature crepe myrtle, you need three tools:

  1. A hand pruner to clip twigs and branches less than ½-inch thick.
  2. Loppers to cut branches a ½ inch to 1½ inches thick.
  3. Pole pruners or a pruning saw which you can use to cut branches more than 1½ inches thick.

When to Prune a Crepe Myrtle

Late winter is the best time to prune a crepe myrtle because it's leafless, and you can easily see all the branches. It also blooms on new growth, so pruning in winter won't reduce blooming; it may increase it. February is the ideal month to tackle the task.

The Right Way to Prune a Crepe Myrtle

While proper pruning can help the health of your crepe myrtle, poor pruning can have the opposite effect. Trying to reduce a crepe myrtle’s height by lopping off the top results in ugly stumps and prevents the formation of pretty, mottled bark on mature trunks. This mistake also creates a forest of skinny, whiplike 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.

To avoid over pruning and leaving yourself with a bundle of sticks, start conservatively and tackle branches in the order below, working your way up the plant by starting at the base.

  1. Reduce the number of trunks if necessary. Though crepe myrtles are naturally multi-trunked trees, you can limit the number of trunks to tame its spread and help its form. Limit your tree to three to five trunks (definitely not more than seven). Always cut back to a larger trunk branch as close to the soil as possible—don't leave stubs.
  2. Remove any suckers that may have appeared. These small sprouts that often grow around the base of a crepe myrtle tree will eventually become trees themselves. Pulling them out now will keep your crepe myrtle from turning into a thick, unkempt shrub.
  3. Time to tackle the branches. To keep your crepe myrtle looking more tree than bush, I like to remove any branches extending from the trunk below the 5 foot mark. On larger trees you may want that line to start even higher, so again, step back and study your tree before lopping off anything.
  4. Move on to the upper branches growing inward towards the tree's center—remember to cut all crossing, rubbing, and dead branches. Always 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 these unwanted branches before they get thicker than a pencil.

A note on seed pods: It's okay but unnecessary to cut off old seed pods. Some people think that if they leave on the seed pods, the crepe myrtle will not bloom next year. FALSE. It will bloom just fine. However, heavy clusters of seed pods can weigh down the branches almost to the point that they're touching the ground. Removing the seeds can take off the weight so the branches rise up. And, if you remove the seed pods early enough in the year—say late July—you'll probably get a second flush of blooms in September.

Restoring a Butchered Crepe Myrtle

If you've beheaded a big crepe myrtle to within a few feet of the ground, there's only one solution. 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 above instructions on how to prune a crepe myrtle, 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. In this case, follow our four-step process to get beautiful plants.

  1. Examine the tops of the stumps you have left. If there are knuckled knobs, cut them off.
  2. Within weeks, bunches of thin shoots will grow from the cut ends of the stumps. Prune off all but a couple that you will let grow.
  3. Keep doing this every spring for the next three years. Don’t let any new shoots grow from the ends of the stumps next to the ones you saved.
  4. Train the saved shoots to grow up and out. Remove any side branches that grow from them towards the center of the tree. The saved shoots will become the new main trunks.

Eventually, your crepe myrtle will look beautiful again. Go and sin no more.

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