Driving through town recently, I saw the inevitable signs of spring: blooming daffodils, earthy-smelling mulch, and “crape murder.”
“Crape murder” is the common and unnecessary practice of lopping off the branches of a perfectly lovely crape myrtle, cutting them back to bare twigs of uniform height. Since crape myrtles bloom on new wood (this year’s growth), it’s believed that whacking off ALL the branches will result in an extra flush of growth, and therefore more blooms.
However, this severe annual pruning is really not needed. For the first few years, it might look great, but eventually you’ll end up with knobby, scarred stems and bunchy branches – like those above – that are vulnerable to diseases and pests.
Light pruning is all that’s needed to keep your crape myrtle in shape and blooming like a champ. So how should you prune a crape myrtle the right way? Here’s what you need to know to get – and keep – the crape myrtles in your yard in top shape.
Shopping for Crape Myrtles
The absolute best way to prune crape myrtles is to not prune them at all! You can avoid many pruning headaches simply by planting the right variety. There are many different kinds of crape myrtles available, from bushy dwarfs with many small stems to graceful small trees with thicker trunks.
Choose your plants carefully and pick varieties that fit your space and needs. Planting under a window? Look for a dwarf variety like “Delta Blush” or “Chica Red.” Want a very small tree beside your driveway? Try “Hopi” or “Zuni.”
Varieties such as “Dynamite” and “Natchez” form trees upwards of 20-30 feet tall, so plant these in an open location, and don’t try to keep them small.
When to Prune Crape Myrtles
The best time to prune crape myrtles is in late winter, before they start growing. Avoid pruning in the fall, since pruning can stimulate the growth of sprouts that may be killed by the coming cold weather.
If your crape myrtle blooms before mid-July, deadheading it (cutting off the dead blooms as soon as they fade) can often make it bloom again.
How to Prune Dwarf or Shrubby Crape Myrtles
Multi-stemmed, shrubby crape myrtles usually don’t need pruning at all, unless they’re growing unevenly. And then, you just need to thin out crowded branches and head back wayward stems.
How to Prune Larger Tree-Form Crape Myrtles
Follow these steps to prune medium and large tree-form varieties of crape myrtle:
- Remove Suckers: Suckers are sprouts that emerge from the base or roots of the plant, ruining the graceful shape that’s desired for crape myrtles. Remove suckers by cutting them off flush, or by ripping them downward so that you remove the base of the sucker as well.
- Shape Trunks: If your crape myrtle is overgrown, select three to five main trunks to keep, and remove all other trunks at the base. Choose trunks that do not touch each other and that arch nicely to produce an attractive overall tree shape.
- Thin Branches: Next, “limb up” the tree by removing the branches on the bottom third to half of the crape myrtle. Also remove any top branches that are crowded or rubbing and any dead wood. Cut branches off at the base to keep them from growing back.
- Head Back: To encourage branching, prune long, leggy branches back to a branch junction. They will sprout the heaviest at the cut site, so prune them back to an open spot in the interior of the tree. Do this carefully to prevent a lot of stubby stems, and plan your cuts so the new growth will fill in where needed.