The Right Way to Prune Crepe Myrtles

We Southerners love our crepe myrtles, and for good reasons: They’re multi–season performers, boasting beautiful flowers in summer and brilliant color in fall. Even their bark looks good. Sometimes, though, if you’re not careful, you can hurt the ones you love. They should be pruned in late winter because their branches are bare and new spring growth won’t be in jeopardy. But so many people take an overly aggressive approach that the practice has spawned a dramatic nickname: “crepe murder.” Here are our tips to avoid appearing on your neighborhood’s Ten Most Wanted list.

The right tools: This list isn’t going to surprise anybody.

  • a hand pruner for twigs and thin branches
  • loppers for thicker branches
  • a pole pruner or saw for branches more than 1.5 inches in diameter and smaller branches that are otherwise out of reach

Choose your targets: Some consider pruning to mean “cutting all of the branches down to stubs.” The tree will respond with a burst of new growth too weak to support the weight of its flowers. This method also exposes more of the myrtle’s attractive bark to damage.

Instead of administering a buzz cut, it’s best to think about helping the tree assume a shape that shows off its best qualities.

The first priority is removing all branches the thickness of a number two pencil or smaller.

Then turn your attention to any remaining within the tree canopy that are growing horizontally or toward the inside. Thinning these interior branches will allow more sun and air to circulate to the healthier ones oriented vertically or toward the outside.

Cut longer branches where they’re about half an inch in diameter. In addition to improving the health of these branches, this step should remove most dried-up flowers, improving the overall look of the tree.

The new growth near the base of a tree is called “suckers” and should also be removed.

Shaping your shrubs: Consider the height that you’d like your shrub crepe myrtles to be in full bloom. Then prune them to be about a foot shorter to accommodate their intense growth in summer. Depending on the size of the plant, you may want to increase this buffer up to two feet.

Or don’t do any of these things: It’s helpful to remove weak branches, and pruning certainly encourages new growth, but you don’t absolutely have to do it. When they’re not hacked to pieces, crepe myrtles are relatively hardy. Many people prune to achieve an appealing silhouette or control the growth of a tree toward other trees or a house. If those aren’t concerns for you, feel free to take a year or two off from this task. Compared with a crepe myrtle that’s been cut back to a bare minimum or beyond, a tree or shrub that expands into its beautiful natural state is far preferable as an eye-catching feature of your southern lawn.