How to prune crape myrtles

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By Tom Woods
Master Gardener
Late January to early March is the time to do needed pruning on tree form crape myrtles. The important concept here is “needed” pruning. We aren’t going to dwell on the barbaric practice of topping these beautiful plants.
If you have a size problem with a crape myrtle, this is the time to think about removing the plant and replacing it with a plant that better fits the space available. Do not give in to the practice of taking a saw and cutting these beautiful trees off at shoulder height.
There are many types of crape myrtles, including dwarf or shrub-types that form a large bush with multiple stems coming from the base of the plant. These types require a different pruning technique than the large, multiple-trunk tree-types we normally see in landscapes. If you have a smaller space and want a crape myrtle, these smaller shrub-types are a good alternative.
When purchasing a tree form crape myrtle, be sure you know the mature size of the plant. You can usually obtain this information from the nursery tag. Since some crape myrtles can become very large, you need to assure that what you are buying will fit appropriately in the space you have selected.
Most of the tree-type crape myrtles at a nursery will have already been pruned into the basic multiple-trunk shape by the nursery. All you need to do is maintain this basic shape. This requires a few simple steps during your annual pruning.
First, you will need to remove any suckers growing from the base of the plant. Young crape myrtles will generate many suckers; mature plants will generate fewer suckers. You can remove suckers at any time during the year by cutting them off at the ground.
Next, you will need to remove any dead, diseased, damaged or crossing limbs. Crossing limbs will damage one another when the wind causes them to chafe. You also need to remove limbs that are growing into the interior of the plant, since they will eventually cross and chafe limbs higher in the canopy.
Third, you need to remove limbs from the main trunks that are below the desired canopy level. This helps expose the trunk colors and the exfoliating bark of many varieties of crape myrtle.
You can remove the old seed heads, if desired. This is not necessary, but it does encourage more flowering. If done in summer just after the bloom, you can sometimes stimulate another later bloom.
If you have a neglected crape myrtle that has become a little wild and ugly, you can regain the upper hand by pruning.
First, select the main trunks that you wish to keep and tag them with cloth or twine so you don’t accidentally cut them while you are removing the untagged branches and trunks. Remove the untagged portions clear to the ground. Once completed, prune the plant annually as described above.
Crape myrtles are trees that enhance any landscape all year long. Please don’t commit “crape murder” by being barbaric with the pruning tools.
Send your gardening questions or comments to: Brunswick County Master Gardener Column, P.O. Box 109, Bolivia, NC 28422, or call 253-2610. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope if requesting information or a reply. Answers may be printed in this column.