Proper Pruning of Crepe Myrtles - Dengarden - Home and Garden
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Proper Pruning of Crepe Myrtles

Maria is a Master Gardener, public health educator, grant-writer, artist, photographer, editor, & proofreader. She lives in coastal Alabama.

The Ruffled Flowers of Crepe Myrtle

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.

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:

  • to remove dead wood, more commonly called "deadwood;"
  • to remove limbs and twigs that are growing back toward the center of the tree;
  • to remove limbs that rub against each other; and
  • to remove branches that hang over neighboring property, if they are causing a problem for your neighbors;
  • 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 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 peeling bark and beautiful canopy.

Lavender Myrtle

Lovely pink myrtle

Lovely pink myrtle

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

Removing Dead Wood

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 encourages new growth, so pruning during a freeze should be avoided because:

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

To cut 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.

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.

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.

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. This will prevent causing people to have to bend to walk under them, for example, when mowing grass. It is much easier, as well as less traumatic for the tree, 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

Cut at the Junction of Two Branches

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. 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.

Another Invitation to Disease and Wood Rot

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

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.

White Blooms of the Natchez Crepe Myrtle

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

proper-pruning

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.

The Watermelon Crepe Myrtle

"Watermelon" crepe myrtle in full bloom.

"Watermelon" crepe myrtle in full bloom.

Certain Species of Crepe Myrtles Have Beautiful, Peeling Bark

The bark of crepe myrtles varies; some have smooth bark, mottled bark, or exfoliating bark. The color of bark also varies among the different types of myrtles, and ranges from light sandalwood to silvery-gray and dark cinnamon. The color variations and peeling bark of crepe myrtles and other trees add textural interest to the winter landscape. The photo below shows the exfoliating, cinnamon-colored bark of the Natchez cultivar.

For a list of the names, flower colors, bark colors, height, width, and shape of crepe myrtles, Clemson University Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information is a wonderful source.

Beautiful Peeling Bark of Crepe Myrtles

Lagerstroemia subcostata bark.

Lagerstroemia subcostata bark.

Is It Crepe or Crape Myrtle?

Some people spell the word crepe with an "a" (crape), presumably because the first "e" is pronounced as an "a." This is an anglicized pronunciation of a French word. In the South, we spell it crepe—the same as in crepe paper.

Do You Commit Crepe Murder?

Happy Pruning to My Fellow Gardeners

Thank you for reading my gardening article. I hope you will take to heart the pleas of master gardeners (and most home gardeners) not to commit "crepe murder." Please leave your comments to let me know you dropped by for a visit.

Questions & Answers

Question: Our crepe myrtle left a mist of sticky stuff on my car?

Answer: Your crepe myrtle may have been infested with aphids. They are small yellowish-green insects that pierce the leaves, then suck the sap. Their droppings (poop) is called a honeydew because it is sticky and sweet. The honeydew can drip onto anything below the branches such as your car, a sidewalk, or other plants. If left long enough black fungus called sooty mold will grow on it. If the mold has not yet formed, the honeydew can be removed with insecticidal soap using your garden hose for a strong spray, using one of those bottles that attach to your hose. If the black fungus has already formed, you can remove it. I once removed it from a small shrub using a toothbrush and soapy water. I'm sure you won't want to do this on a tree, so you can simply remove those branches, or spray the tree with a fungicide -- maybe do both. There is a good organic one called "Garden Safe" that I use. I tried to put an Amazon ad for this product on my Crepe Myrtle article, but HubPages wouldn't allow it, stating the reason that Amazon does not provide information for 3rd party users.

Question: How can I trim crepe myrtle branches weighted down with blooms?

Answer: I see no reason to trim them unless they are at risk of breaking the limbs. If you need to prune them, do it just as described in my article: at a joint, and always on a slant.

Question: Can I remove the flowers of the crepe myrtles after they bloom so they don't fall off everywhere?

Answer: You definitely can. If you remove the whole cluster of immature seed pods as soon as the flowers drop, you will get a 2nd bloom cycle. Then to prevent seeds forming, remove the next set of seed pods before they ripen.

Question: How should a crepe myrtle be fertilized?

Answer: During the first year, fertilize once per month. After that first year, you can back off a bit, fertilizing once or twice during the growing season. Use a 8-8-8 or 10-10-10, and begin fertilizing when the first leaves appear in spring. Stop fertilizing in fall when the leaves begin to turn autumn colors and drop.

Question: I have a very beautiful large crepe myrtle (+20ft) planted by the previous owners that has grown into my house, and I need to cut it back. If I cut just the branches that are growing into the house, I think it will look lopsided. An arborist told me just to cut the top off (about 10ft). If I do this, will it eventually fill itself out and still bloom?

Answer: It's fine to remove the part that has grown into the house. Just be sure to make your cuts are at a joint, as shown, and be sure to cut on a slant, so water will run off. To prevent a lopsided appearance, you could remove some all the way around the tree, maybe removing more on the side by the house. Be sure to wait about pruning until danger of a freeze is passed, because pruning encourages new growth that can be damaged in a freeze or frost.

Question: I have had my (Natchez) Myrtle for about 27 years, and do "murder" about every 5 years, as I did this year. I have wormy looking things hanging off the trunk. Never have seen this before. It comes off easily just by rubbing. What is this wormy thing on my Crepe Myrtle?

Answer: Without seeing it, I can't be sure. Here in central Florida, our myrtles get lichens on the trunks. Some of the lichens are fuzzy, some are "peely" for lack of a better word. They won't harm the tree, but I prefer to see the beautiful peeling bark, so I wear gloves and rub (or scrub) it off. If you don't believe your "wormy things" are lichens, you can send me a photo at gardenerandcookblog@gmail.com

Question: How can I correct my 20 foot butchered myrtles?

Answer: It depends on how badly they are butchered. If they look as bad as the one I referred to as appearing to have "knobby arthritic knees" I would cut it all the way back to the ground, and let it start over. They grow amazingly fast, so it shouldn't be long before they're tall again. If they're not too badly butchered, you could simply stop the incorrect pruning, and begin pruning correctly, or not prune at all. Of course, if they have branches scraping against your house, or if they are hanging over your neighbor's property, you may want to prune them. Be sure to wait about pruning until danger of a freeze is passed because pruning encourages new growth that can be damaged in a freeze or frost.

Question: Do you have a suggestion to prune a standard crepe myrtle that was pruned to look like a bush?

Answer: To return it to the tree size that it wants to be, I would remove all but 3 or 4 of the main trunks, then remove the little side branches from the lower portion of those remaining trunks. Also, remove any twigs or branches that grow back to the center of the tree. If you have any two that lie against each other and rub in the wind, remove one of them. Good luck with it. I hope it turns out well for you. Be sure to wait about pruning until danger of a freeze has passed because pruning encourages new growth that can be damaged in a freeze or frost.

Question: Every spring or summer some of my crepe myrtles get what I think is a fungus or mold. What is it and is there a solution?

Answer: A fungus or some types of mold, such as black spot will be on the leaves. Often crepe myrtles will have lichens growing on the bark. If it is lichen, it will not harm the tree. Some people, myself included, don't like the appearance of the lichen-covered trunks. While wearing garden gloves, I slide my hands up and down to remove the lichens. On the other hand, if what you have is a fungus, you spray with a fungicide. Also, be sure to remove any dropped leaves that have the spots from the ground below. If they are not removed, rain or irrigation will splash the mold spores back up onto the tree and any surrounding plants.

Question: Half my crepe myrtle had no growth at all this year. I noticed last year some branches did not have any growth. What went wrong?

Answer: It could be any of a number of things. Is it getting full sun (at least 6 hours per day)? Does it have good drainage? Is it too close to a large tree such as an oak tree, whose roots will be competing with it for water? How long has it been since it was last fertilized? Is it possible that someone sprayed weed & grass killer on a windy or breezy day, and some of the sprays got on the myrtle tree? Does it appear to have a disease or a fungus? To see that, look at the leaves. Are they spotty? Some crepe myrtles are susceptible to powdery mildew. It looks like a white powder on the leaves. That's all I can think of at this time.

Question: How big do shrub Crepe Myrtles get?

Answer: They can easily grow to 6 to 8 feet tall. Occasionally larger. The standards, on the other hand, can grow to 20 to 30 feet.

Question: How far back should seeds of a crepe myrtle be pruned?

Answer: I apologize for being so long in replying. I haven't logged on for a while. Just remove the entire group of seed pods. If you didn't do it last summer, wait until any chance of freeze or frost has passed. Pruning encourages new growth, and the tender new growth could be damaged by freezing temps or frost.

Question: I have branches rubbing together and wearing the bark off, what do I do?

Answer: Unfortunately, one of them must go. It's best to remove a small twig or branch that will grow to rub against another as soon as you see it, but it sounds like it's too late for that. If one of yours is not removed, they will eventually fuse together. Take a look at the direction in which each branch is growing. If is growing back toward the center of the tree, it should be the one to go, as should any other branches/twigs growing in that direction. If neither is growing toward the center, choose the smaller or weaker one. We just relocated, and there are several myrtles with fused branches and some not yet fused, but damaged bark. Looks like you and I both have our work cut out for us.

Question: I was sent twigs when I ordered a bush. How do I cultivate a twig to grow?

Answer: Shipping large plants is difficult and extremely expensive. That's probably why you got something much smaller than expected. Crepe myrtles grow quickly. Install it in good soil with good drainage. Fertilize it with something like Osmocote. It comes in little beads that will continuously feed for 2 - 3 months. You can feed it 2 or 3 times spring to fall. Do not feed during winter. It needs to rest then. Water it every day for the first week, then once per week for the remainder of the first month. After that, rain should be enough unless you have a period of drought. I hope this helps.

Question: I have a standard form pink velour I put in two years ago. It bloomed pink flowers from the top but then had branches that grew twice the size of the tree from the bottom in just a few weeks with white flowers. Do I leave the new exceptionally fast-growing white dominant limbs? I don't want to kill my tree or make it susceptible to anything. Also, if I leave it will the white part eventually kill off the pink?

Answer: That's really strange! It could be that there were 2 plants in one container when the tree was delivered. If the white one came up from the ground level to be that tall in just a few weeks, I'm not sure what to tell you. It sounds like it would be pretty with both pink and white together, even it it is a bit strange. I researched this for you, but cannot find anything. Sorry I can't be more help. Maybe take a good photo of it to your local county extension office for local master gardeners to take a look.

Question: The power company is wanting to top my 20’ crepe myrtle. I’ve offered to trim it myself, but how does one appropriately shorten a crepe myrtle without murdering it?

Answer: Always cut at a joint, as shown in my photo titled, "Where to Make the Cut". Always cut on an angle, to prevent water from sitting on the raw wood, and eventually seeping into it. You can remove some of the larger/thicker branches -- just be sure to cut them at the point where they emerge from another branch or the main trunk. Definitely do it yourself. The utility guys will butcher your myrtles.

Question: Could I send you a picture of one of the four Crepe Myrtles from around my home?

Answer: Sure you can. Please send it them to: gardenerandcookblog@gmail.com, and I'll see how and if I can help.

Question: How do get rid of the new growth at the bottom of the crepe myrtles? I am so tired of cutting them! I have over 25 trees down my driveway.

Answer: Removing the sucker growth at ground level is the only thing I know to do. After talking with my other master gardeners colleagues, we agreed, it's a lot of work, but worth it. Maybe you could pay a local kid or lawn maintenance guy to do it for you.

© 2011 MariaMontgomery

Comments

MariaMontgomery (author) from Central Florida, USA on April 26, 2014:

@aaxiaa lm: I do too. I think it may be my favorite color for these trees.

aaxiaa lm on April 26, 2014:

I love the watermelon one!

MariaMontgomery (author) from Central Florida, USA on January 16, 2014:

@Dusty2 LM: I wish people would call experts before doing that type of severe pruning. Unfortunately, lots of yard maintenance guys don't know any better, and actually believe they are supposed to do it. Imagine that! It makes me mad to think about it. But we can't control everything, right? Thanks again for your nice comment and the thumbs up on this, one of my favorite of my lenses.

Dusty2 LM on January 12, 2014:

I love crepe myrtles and their fragrance. However, they must not like the climate here. I have tried to grow several crepe myrtles and all did not make it the second year after planting. Anyway, I really appreciate you sharing this lens as you provided some really good info on how to not butcher them. I liked seeing the photos of the healthy crepe myrtles but was saddened to see the butchered ones. Why don't people call the experts if they do not know how to properly prune a tree so they can be enjoyed like they were meant to be? Sorry; it just makes me sad to see trees improperly cared for! I appreciate you stopping by my ULTRA AeroGarden lens and giving it a "thumbs up". Thank You!

MariaMontgomery (author) from Central Florida, USA on August 30, 2013:

@SamiPearl: Do you know whether it is a shrub or a standard? If it is a shrub, I wouldn't prune it at that height. If it is a tree, I would prune only to achieve the shape I wanted. For example if there side shoots forming down low on the main trunks, I would remove them. If there are any branches growing toward the center of the tree, I would remove those. Other than that, I would just let it grow for now. Be sure to mulch it well to prevent grass and weeds from growing around and among the trunks, and to keep the soil cooler. Thank you for visiting my lens and for the squidlike. You may also enjoy my new lens, How to Get a Second Bloom Cycle on Crepe Myrtles. Let me know how your little plant gets along.

MariaMontgomery (author) from Central Florida, USA on August 30, 2013:

@Virginia Allain: Make 'em do it right! I've noticed a lot of those guys really believe that's the way it should be done. So I don't let them touch my myrtles.

SamiPearl on August 28, 2013:

Do you have any specific tips for pruning baby (and I mean baby. I bought it for $10 3 falls ago now) crepe myrtles? So far I've just let it go because it's so tiny. It's about 3-4 feet tall now.

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on August 26, 2013:

We have a landscaping service as part of our community package in Florida. It's nice to have everything trimmed and weeded and taken care of. Unfortunately, it seems like they are doing it wrong in trimming our crepe myrtles. Auugh.

MariaMontgomery (author) from Central Florida, USA on April 29, 2013:

@paperfacets: Yes, it should! Don't you just love them? Thanks so much for the squidlike and comment.

Sherry Venegas from La Verne, CA on April 15, 2013:

I love Crepe Myrtle bushes and trees. It should be the next tree I buy for the yard. Their color is fabulous.

MariaMontgomery (author) from Central Florida, USA on March 27, 2013:

@lionmom100: If you have the space, you must have at least one. The provide blooms for such a long period. Thanks for the nice comment and for the squidlike on this lens.

lionmom100 on March 26, 2013:

I love Crepe Myrtles, but do not have any. They seem to do fine in my area though and there are some beautiful ones about two blocks away.

Aunt-Mollie on October 15, 2012:

I love these trees and they do love the Southern climate.

MariaMontgomery (author) from Central Florida, USA on August 04, 2012:

@anonymous: Thank you. You, too. Also, thank you for the squidlike on this lens.

anonymous on August 03, 2012:

Nice trees. Have a great weekend.xxx

MariaMontgomery (author) from Central Florida, USA on July 20, 2012:

@KimGiancaterino: I wish that were the case around here about the crepe myrtles. Years ago, I had hybrid tea roses that hung over my neighbor's back yard fence. When I told him that I would trim them back a bit, he said, "Don't you dare cut those roses! They look just as pretty from my side as they do from your's." We both need more neighbors like that one, huh?

KimGiancaterino on July 19, 2012:

We have 4 crepe myrtle trees in the front garden and I barely trim them. The gardeners in Los Angeles seem to have crepe myrtles down -- you seldom see butchered versions. However, we have crazy neighbors who don't tolerate any type of encroachment. Some of our other plants have been ripped out or broken off with bare hands. I planted the crepe myrtles far enough inside the garden that they shouldn't be a problem.

MariaMontgomery (author) from Central Florida, USA on July 11, 2012:

@JoshK47: Hello again, Josh! Thank you so much for the squidlike, comment, and angel blessing on my lens about how to prune crepe myrtles. That lens is on a topic very near to my heart.

JoshK47 on July 10, 2012:

Excellent information! Thanks for sharing! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

MariaMontgomery (author) from Central Florida, USA on July 04, 2012:

@tracy-arizmendi: Yes it is. Thank you for the squid likes on 2 of my lenses, and for your comment. Also, thanks for letting me know about double points for today. Guess I'm not paying attention.

Tracy Arizmendi from Northern Virginia on July 04, 2012:

Here in Virginia I see crepe murder all the time!!! It is just awful to see how many people butcher their crepe myrtles up here!!!

PapaKork on June 13, 2012:

I was doing it all wrong! I'm sure my crepe myrtle will appreciate this useful information the next time I prune!

trendydad on May 17, 2012:

nice lens for proper pruning

sheezie77 on May 16, 2012:

Very nice post Thumbs up!

CoeGurl on April 29, 2012:

We had crepe myrtles when we lived in Tennessee. They are so beautiful. Thanks for this information on how to properly prune them.

cathywoodosborn on March 25, 2012:

So glad I found this lens. My husband and I were talking about the need to prune our lovely Crepe Myrtle just a couple of days ago.

E L Seaton from Virginia on March 24, 2012:

My trees sadly were getting butchered about the time this great lens on proper trimming was gettng published. The good news is one was missed and the others will be trimmed better in the future. Blessed by COUNTRYLUTHIER.

Mickie Gee on March 02, 2012:

My husband is threatening "murder" on my myrtles! Help! I am sending him this page so he can read it.