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Proper Pruning of Crepe Myrtles

Maria is a master gardener and master of public health. She & her husband, known online as The Gardener & The Cook, live in coastal Alabama.

The Ruffled Flowers of Crepe Myrtle Trees

The Ruffled Flowers of Crepe Myrtle Trees

The Correct Way to Prune a Crepe Myrtle

Crepe myrtles are sun-loving ornamental trees and shrubs found throughout the southeastern United States, and are loved by everyone. Unfortunately, correct pruning of these beautiful trees is seen less and less. What we see more often are butchered myrtles. While most people prune their myrtles during winter, the butchering often begins before summer is over. Pruning of these trees should be done in late winter, after the chance of a freeze has passed. Why? Because pruning encourages new growth that could be damaged in freezing weather.

Crepe myrtle trees have beautiful spreading canopies, and provide shade for an underplanting of impatiens and other shade-loving bedding plants including perennials, foliage plants such as liriope, fern, and hosta, and a variety of ground covers. They also can be underplanted with sun-loving bulbs because the bulbs usually bloom prior to the trees getting their leaves. Be aware that crepe myrtles do not seem to like having shrubs planted underneath them. I suspect it's because of too much competition for water.

Conditions for Pruning

Crepe myrtles lose their leaves in winter, so any necessary pruning should be done during late winter or very early spring. Note that I said necessary pruning, not butchering.

There are five (and only five) good reasons to prune a crepe myrtle tree:

  1. to remove dead wood, more commonly called "deadwood;"
  2. to remove limbs and twigs that are growing back toward the center of the tree;
  3. to remove limbs that rub against each other;
  4. to remove branches that hang over neighboring property, if they are causing a problem for your neighbors; and
  5. to remove small, low-hanging limbs that will one day hang out over a walkway, path, or lawn.

The Best Hand Pruners I Have Ever Used

The Difference in Growth Patterns of a Natural Canopy vs. That of a Butchered Myrtle

One butchered, one not.

One butchered, one not.

One Butchered, One Not

The photo above shows the difference in the graceful canopy (on the left) of a crepe myrtle tree that has been pruned correctly, beside one that was lopped off, a.k.a., "butchered". The new limbs of the butchered myrtle (on the right) stick out in all directions, giving the appearance of hair after electric shock.

The palms and other growth block the view the lower limbs of the myrtle on the left. It is a Natchez crepe myrtle, and has the lovely cinnamon-colored peeling bark.

Lovely lavender myrtle

Lovely lavender myrtle

When Can I Prune or Remove Dead Wood From My Tree?

Dead wood can be removed at any time of the year. Pruning of living material should be done in late winter or early to mid-spring after the danger of freezing temperatures has passed. Pruning of live material encourages new growth, so pruning prior to any chance of freezing temperatures should be avoided because:

  1. A freeze would kill any new growth.
  2. This plant blooms only on new growth.

To prune in late spring would be to remove flower buds. Crepe myrtles may also be pruned in summer after blooming is finished. In fact, by pruning immediately after bloom heads are spent, you can obtain a second bloom cycle. To see my article entitled, "How to Get a Second Bloom Cycle on Crepe Myrtles", click right here.

These Loppers Are Great for Cutting Larger Branches

A Torn Cut Invites Pests and Disease

This is not a crepe myrtle, but it is an example of damage from dull pruners and incorrect pruning methods. The shrub belongs to my former neighbor, and the damage was done by a guy with a lawnmower in a pick-up truck calling himself a landscaper.

This is not a crepe myrtle, but it is an example of damage from dull pruners and incorrect pruning methods. The shrub belongs to my former neighbor, and the damage was done by a guy with a lawnmower in a pick-up truck calling himself a landscaper.

"Cuts should be smooth and the bark should remain intact at the cut to avoid injuring the plant and inviting disease."

— Maria

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Which Limbs and Twigs Should Be Pruned?

Any limbs and twigs that are growing back toward the center of the tree should be removed, as well as any that touch other limbs. This is done in order to prevent damage to the bark which may be caused by the limbs rubbing against each other on windy days. If two limbs are allowed to continue touching or rubbing together, they will eventually "fuse" together.

Also, if your crepe myrtles have any small limbs that will eventually hang out over a walk, path, or lawn as they grow larger, consider removing them now. It is less traumatic for the tree, and much easier to remove the limbs before they grow large.

Where to Make the Cut

The red line indicates where the cut should have been made.

The red line indicates where the cut should have been made.

How to Trim Tree Limbs Without Damaging the Tree and Inviting Disease

The tree pictured above was badly damaged by poor pruning techniques. The red line drawn on the stump shows where the cut should have been made for that branch.

Cut at the Junction of Two Branches

If made at that point, it would heal nicely. If left like this, with the bark ripped away from the raw wood, it would have been only a matter of time before disease and pests invaded the tree. To prevent further damage, I had to clean up the "work" of someone else and make additional cuts at the proper place.

Cut at a Steep Slant

The cut should be made on a steep slant so that water will run off and not sit and soak into the raw wood which can cause rot and decay. This is why fence posts are pointed, sloped, or rounded.

Trim at the Correct Angle, But With Sharp Pruner Blades

While this is the correct angle to be used, the pruners needed to be sharpened to avoid tearing the plant tissue, and inviting disease and pests.

While this is the correct angle to be used, the pruners needed to be sharpened to avoid tearing the plant tissue, and inviting disease and pests.

Stumps that are this high sometimes die back and can compromise the health of the entire plant. If left like this, any new growth would be poorly attached to the stump. It would also produce unsightly "knuckles." Remove stumps at ground level.

Stumps that are this high sometimes die back and can compromise the health of the entire plant. If left like this, any new growth would be poorly attached to the stump. It would also produce unsightly "knuckles." Remove stumps at ground level.

What Is Crepe Murder?

"Crepe Murder" is the name serious gardeners gave to the act of cutting crepe myrtle trees back to only a few tall stumps. After being cut back so severely, the new growth becomes tightly arranged and, over time, will produce knotty bumps. If cut back in this manner year after year, the tree will appear terribly deformed (as shown below).

Although leaves and blossoms will hide the damage on trees that have been butchered, you can easily pick out a tree that has received this treatment from one that has not. In winter while the trees are bare, they look hideous. When crepe myrtles that have been severely pruned finally put out new growth, they resemble short, squatty trees with butch haircuts.

Incorrect Pruning: The Results of Crepe Murder

New growth on old stumps from improper pruning.

New growth on old stumps from improper pruning.

Correct Pruning

A graceful canopy of a non-butchered myrtle.

A graceful canopy of a non-butchered myrtle.

Standard Vs. Shrub Crepe Myrtles

Crepe myrtles come in shrubs and standards. Shrub myrtles will grow to a height of several feet, but will never look like a tree. A standard is a crepe myrtle that will become a small ornamental tree, but small is relative — they are small only when compared to large, majestic trees such as oaks, or when butchered. The standards can grow quite large, so they should be planted with an eye for the future. Unless they have plenty of space, they will need pruning from time to time. As discussed above, there is a proper way to prune these trees and another way that will ruin the shape forever and will eventually damage the tree.

Why Purchase the Shrub Type of Crepe Myrtle?

People who want their crepe myrtle to stay small should purchase the shrub type and stay away from standards which are intended to become trees.

Two Natchez crepe myrtles in full bloom. Note the lovely, broad canopy.

Two Natchez crepe myrtles in full bloom. Note the lovely, broad canopy.

Bird's Eye View of the Natchez Flowers

Bird's Eye View of the Natchez Flowers

The Natchez Crepe Myrtle

The Natchez is one of my favorite cultivars of crepe myrtles because of its spreading canopy, great height (for an ornamental), and large clusters of snow-white flowers. It grows to over 30 feet in height with a top spread of about 15-20 feet in diameter.

I installed two Natchez crepe myrtles in front of our home near Charlotte, North Carolina, where we lived for almost nine years. The canopy of the two trees grew together and provided nice shade for our front door. When they bloomed in mid-to-late May through June or early July, they were like two giant, graceful snowballs.