The crape myrtle, also spelled crepe myrtle, is one of the most elegant and colorful trees you see in our region. In spring and summer, their beautiful blooms make the landscape more vibrant. Even when they’re not blooming, they’re still lovely trees.
Crape Myrtles are fairly easy to take care of, but like most other trees and shrubs, they require annual trimming and shaping, a process we call pruning. This promotes good growth, keeps them healthy and attractive, and prevents them from becoming too overgrown for their location.
Pruning has to be done, right, though. Done improperly, it can actually cause more harm than good, resulting in unruly growth or diseased or dead plants. Let’s look into proper pruning techniques for crape myrtles.
What To Avoid Doing
When talking about what to do, it’s sometimes just as important to talk about what not to do.
Don’t commit “crepe murder.” Landscaping pros use this term for crape myrtles that have been drastically pruned, with as much as half the tree, including the top, shorn away. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think a severe storm had decimated the tree or that it was dead. This pruning style is bad not just because it looks ugly but because it prevents the formation of healthy bark, leaves the tree more susceptible to disease, and spurs the growth of thin shoots from the cuts. Those shoots are too weak to support the blooms when they come, and they bend and sag.
Don’t cut during the growing season. Did you know that each year’s blooms only come from new growth? So if you cut back during the growing season, you’re cutting back your new growth, which means no blooms. The best time to prune crape myrtles is in the winter.
There are three main styles to choose from.
Single Trunk: This is maybe the prettiest look, but it also requires the most time and effort. Choose a dominant single trunk of the tree and then prune to maintain just that one trunk and its branches. Since older, more established trees are harder to cut back to this style, you want to take this approach with younger trees.
Multiple Trunks: This approach is probably the most popular, especially among pros. You’ll remove any shoots (“suckers”) from the base, and you’ll gradually remove side branches as the tree grows taller (you’re leaving clusters of branches just at the top). Cut off unwanted branches before they get thicker than a pencil.
Natural Look: This is the simplest approach and requires little or no pruning. Just let the tree grow into its natural shape, and only prune if there are unhealthy spots or if the tree is growing into areas where you don’t want it to.
Basic Pruning Techniques
First thing to know: always cut back to a larger branch, never leaving stubs. Stubs can ruin the plant’s shape and promote weaker growth.
Prune in this order:
- Remove any suckers growing at or from the base.
- Cut away side branches growing from the main trunk(s). Unless you’re going for the natural look, you’ll want at least 4’ of bare trunk from the base up.
- Cut away any higher branches that instead of growing outward are growing towards the center of the tree.
- If any branches are crossing, rubbing, or dead, remove them next.
- Finally, remove any other branches growing at awkward angles or otherwise detracting from the tree’s appearance.
Crape myrtles are very tough and resilient, so if you make some mistakes, the tree will probably return to the desired form within 2 to 3 seasons. However, that’s time you won’t be enjoying your tree as much as you could, underscoring the importance of proper pruning techniques for crape myrtles.
What Tools Do You Need?
If all this sounds complicated, then here’s some good news: the tools aren’t. All you need are some hand pruners to manage twigs and branches up to half an inch thick, and long-handled loppers for up to 1 ½ inches in thickness. For everything thicker, use a pruning saw. Only if the tree has grown out of control might you need something like a chainsaw.
Complete Landscaping Installation and Care by LandArt Solutions
After reading this, are you having trouble trusting yourself with the proper pruning of your crape myrtles? Do you just not have the time?
LandArt Solutions, with more than 20 years of field experience, is a full-service landscaping and lawn care company serving the Fayetteville, NC region. How can we help you with your pruning and other lawn needs? Talk to us today!