How to remove crepe myrtle?

Q:  I continue to have sprouts coming up from the bottom of my crape myrtle.  When should I prune them?

A: These sprouts growing around the base of the crape myrtle are called suckers. If you leave them they will eventually become large making the tree have more trunks than desired. We would suggest limiting the crape myrtle to no more than five main trunks with three to five being acceptable. This makes the tree much easier to manage.

It is appropriate to prune suckers from any tree any time of year. Removing them early, while the stem is small, is the preferred practice. Remember anytime a pruning cut is made there is the potential opportunity for decay to occur. Therefore, removing the stem when it is small minimizes the possibility for disease. No need to paint the cut with any substance. Allow the natural ability of the tree to seal over the pruned area.

Several pruning sessions may be required to control suckers from forming but eventually fewer and fewer will be produced. You may also remove any dead or decaying branches any time of year. Stems rubbing each other, those growing straight up from a branch (water sprouts) or those growing toward the trunk should also be pruned.

by kathywarner

Posted: July 12, 2017

Category: Home Landscapes

Tags: crape-myrtle, pruning, suckers

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If you’ve seen those crape myrtles with ugly knuckle-like stubs, butchered by overzealous improper pruning, you know what we mean by “crape murder.” Not only does this practice of topping trees make the tree look horrible, it makes it weaker and leads to problems down the road. Learn how to prune a crape myrtle tree in this blog. These flowering trees are worth the work!

The crape myrtle has a naturally majestic shape and a strikingly beautiful tree trunk. It requires full sun to perform at its best ability. Pruned correctly, the crape myrtle has a graceful elegance. Correctly pruned crapes have more flowers than those pruned incorrectly. Read more about Basic Pruning for Trees and Shrubs.

In the process we call Crepe Murder, these beautiful trees are more susceptible to pests and disease when they are not allowed to grow to their natural form

Indiscriminately whacking back a crape myrtle produces a thick, knobby stub of a stump from which sprouts a thicket of weak growth, whiplike shoots. The dense tangle of foliage thus created makes the tree more susceptible to diseases such as powdery mildew, and pests such as aphids and mites. When the bloom does come, many of the long thin shoots are too weak to hold the weight, and wind up hanging down in an unnatural mess. Sometimes they break off.

It looks even worse in winter when the poor bedraggled tree is leafless. Extreme shearing causes blooming to be delayed by six to eight weeks, a shortened bloom period, and fewer flowers overall. Crape myrtles trimmed annually to their knees will never display the beautiful multi-colored bark that gives the mature crape its outstanding winter interest that is every bit as desirable as the summertime flowers.

Crape Myrtle Myths

You may have heard that you need to remove a crape myrtle’s old seed heads or spent flowers to maximize blooming the following year. This is false.

You may have heard that since crape myrtles bloom on new growth (true enough), you need to remove old growth to maximize flowering and promote new growth. Not true.

You may think that hacking the tree back is the best way to keep it from getting too big for its location. This is not true either. You can reduce a crape myrtle’s size with carefully placed “thinning cuts”, as we describe below.

But maybe you planted the tree in the wrong place, or you selected a cultivar that gets too big for that location. Better to remove the tree that’s too big and replace it with one of the many dwarf varieties that naturally stay smaller. Perfect Plants offers ten different varieties of crape myrtle, with mature heights ranging from 8-15 feet (Tonto) to 25-30 feet (Natchez). Black Diamond Crape Myrtles are dwarf sized and stay between 8-10 feet tall and 8 feet wide at full size.

Read more about this in .

So, it’s time to prune crape myrtles correctly

Loppers are used for bigger branches and may be helpful when pruning your crape myrtle tree

You will need a pair of good quality hand pruners to clip branches up to one-half inch in diameter. Loppers are used for branches up to an inch and half thick. You may need a pruning saw for bigger branches and trunks. You may need a pole pruner with long handles for branches too high to reach with the loppers. These are the best tools to prune a crepe myrtle. You don’t need all of them… just do the best you can.

The best time to prune most trees is in late winter or early spring when they are leafless and you can clearly see the defining architecture. The crape myrtle is no exception to this rule.

Take a look at a tree, any tree. If you look closely you will see a swollen area where a branch joins a larger branch. This is the “branch collar” and it produces hormones that help to heal the wound from a severed branch. Make your “thinning cuts” to just barely above the branch collar, never flush with the larger branch, and never leaving a stub. Make “heading cuts” back to an outward facing bud or an outward facing side branch. Tree wound dressings are not helpful and can actually encourage decay.

The natural form (called the “growth habit”) of a crape myrtle is like a vase with multiple trunks, each with side branches fanning upward and outward, and no branches growing downward or inward.

Pruning a young crape myrtle tree:

It is best to start pruning crape myrtles as young trees so they develop a healthy growth habit

During its first winter, you should begin training your new crape myrtle to the natural vase shape described above. Decide whether you want a single trunk or three to five evenly spaced trunks and remove all others at ground level. This (these) will be the main trunk(s) to be kept free of branches for three to eight feet (you decide), so that the crape’s beautiful mottled bark is exposed.

Select a few outward growing side branches above the chosen height on each main trunk, and remove those that are lower, inward growing toward the center of the tree, and those that are growing at unsightly horizontal angles. Side branches look best when they are growing up and out. Remember to cut back to the branch collar, and not flush with the larger branch, and don’t leave a stub. Cut off, or better yet, break off, all suckers that may be sprouting from the ground or base of the trunk(s). Cut out dead branches and the weaker of crossed branches.

If your new tree is whiplike with a single stem, use a heading cut a few feet above ground to encourage formation of shoots. The following winter select three to five of the new shoots to continue training for the vase shape.

How to fix a murdered crepe myrtle:

We can’t completely undo years of crape murder, but we can get the tree on the way to looking more like the fine specimen it was meant to be. How much can you prune a crape myrtles?

You don’t have to wait until winter for this first step:

  1. Cut off those ugly knobby stubs! Many new shoots will sprout from each of the stumps we just created.
  2. Next winter, select two or three of the strongest upright shoots on each stump, and cut off all the others. Cut back each of the selected shoots to about two feet long and just above an outward facing bud or outward growing side shoot if there is one.
  3. If there are more than five main trunks, cut the extras to the ground. We want three to five main trunks, each of which being clear of any side branches for three to eight feet above ground.
  4. If any of the main trunks is branched too low, remove the weaker branches and those that are growing inward. (Normally, we don’t prune out more than 25% of a tree at any one time, but this is major surgery and an exception to the rule.)
  5. Each winter thereafter, prune as described below. It can take up to five years or more to cure a murdered crape, but don’t give up.

Restoring a crape myrtle that hasn’t been pruned at all

  • This crape myrtle is in need of a prune
  • After proper pruning the tree looks much better!

Left unpruned, crape myrtles sometimes develop too many trunks, and always develop too many side branches. There is not enough air circulation for the trunk and branches to grow. Here we learn how to restore a crape to one with a single trunk or the more typical multi stem habit. Cutting back crape myrtles is essential for the health of the tree. It is never too late to prune your crape myrtles.

Choose one, three, or five (we like odd numbers!) of the strongest, straightest trunks and saw the others off at the ground. Unfortunately, this will encourage suckers to sprout up from the ground, and these should be removed as they appear.

The beautiful bark on this Natchez crape mytle is left exposed for all to see and admire

Crape myrtles look best when the main trunks are smooth and clear of side branches for four to eight feet above ground, thus exposing the distinctive mottled and flaking bark that is so attractive. Remove all branches on the side up to the height that looks best for you.

If the tree is too large, you can cut off the tallest branches back to where they join another branch that is at least one-third as thick. This method, called a “thinning cut”, will preserve the natural shape of the tree while reducing its overall size.

If you have to remove an entire branch, cut it back to the branch collar. Remove a portion of a branch with a “heading cut” back to an outward facing bud or outward facing side branch. Do not remove more than 25% of the tree at one time.

How to Care for Crape Myrtle – Annual Maintenance

Cut off, or better yet, break off, all suckers that may be sprouting from the ground or base of the trunk(s). You can do this any time of year.

Each winter, cut out dead branches and the weaker of crossed branches. Cut out side branches that are growing inward toward the center of the tree, and those that are growing at unsightly horizontal angles, or pointing too far outward. Side branches look best when they are pointed up and out. Remember to cut back to the branch collar, and not flush with the larger branch, and not leaving a stub.

Over fertilizing crepe myrtle trees causes them to produce more basal suckers and make fewer flowers. Only fertilize your crape if a soil test indicates that one or more essential nutrients is in short supply.

Read more about crape myrtle care in our Crape Myrtle Grow Guide.

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​Trim your Crape Myrtles like a pro. Don’t make these 4 mistakes.

You might be wondering.. How should I prune my Crape Myrtles like the pros do.

No worries, this is a common question we get and by the end of this article you’ll understand how to prune your crepe myrtle trees without making the same mistakes you’ve seen your neighbors make.

First things first

You need to decide what look you would like for your tree to have

  • Single Trunk
  • Multi Stem
  • Natural Look

Now the good news is that Crape Myrtles are one darn tough plant. So the bottom line is if you make a mistake most likely your tree will recover in a few seasons.

Most people don’t know this

The reason you should prune your Crape Myrtles is because of one reason… blooms.

Only the new growth each year is what produces those lovely blooms that you admire each spring and summer.

So with that being said, it pays to prune your Crape Myrtles in the winter months as soon as November at as late at March when they are dormant.

The good news is most Crape Myrtles can be pruned with hand held shears or long handles loppers. If yours are way out of control, then a chainsaw might be necessary in the most extreme cases.

So now on to the good stuff.

When you prune your Crape Myrtle the proper way it will will maximize blooms, promote new growth and give your plant a great shape.

That said.. Your pruning is done in winter when the Crape Myrtle is dormant, between the months of December and February.

The good news is that super aggressive pruning that you might have seen around town is not actually needed to get a beautiful, healthy plant. Picture Picture Picture

But that’s just part of the story.

You need to know about “Crape Murder”

“Crape Murder” is what the pros say describe the butchering of Crape Myrtles.

What’s more… When Crape Murder is committed it can literally appear that half, or more, of the plant has been removed.

On the one hand… This technique is used by some no professional landscapers and homeowners because it’s quick, fairly easy, the plant almost always recovers.. Fair enough , BUT This technique is NOT recommended as it may damage you plant. OK… that’s fine you say… but meanwhile you might be wondering “What are Suckers?”

Simply put .. the “Suckers” are the new growth that comes from the base of the trunk.

Most professional lawn care services and homeowners who know what they are doing will prune these off.

Now with that being said , if you want your Crape Myrtle to have a more “natural” look or would maybe would even prefer for it to grow multiple trunks, then the good news is you can leave some of the suckers to grow up. The best part? Blooms will appear on new growth suckers.

Now…these are your Crape Myrtle’s… So it’s up to you how you would like for them to look. But it helps to identify which pruning style meets your ideal look, so keep reading to find out more about the three main pruning styles.

The Single Trunk

In my opinion , the single trunk Crape Myrtle is one of the more beautiful shapes the tree can take on with proper pruning, however, will require the most investment in pruning each year.

Why is the case? First you’ll need to remove any extra stems protruding from the ground, as well as any suckers.

Next you what all of the tree’s branching to happen at the top quarter of your tree. That said, you’ll need to pick a dominant single trunk for the tree, and prune away another others at the base.

If you choose the single trunk method its best to start while the Crape Myrtle tree is younger as more established trees most likely can not be retroactively pruned to this style and shape.

Multi-Trunk

The multi trunk look for Crape Myrtles is probably the most common professional trimming approach. It is relied upon by lawn care services all over the country to establish beautiful Crape Myrtle bushes full of blooms each spring and summer for their clients.

So to make a point… to achieve the multi stem look, allow your Crape Myrtle to branch along the length of the stem and follow these steps

  1. Try to prune later in winter, February is ideal.
  2. Cut off suckers from the bottom, rubbing and cross growing branches and branches growing inward.
  3. Gradually cut off all side branches from the main base as the tree gets taller.
  4. Never leave lone or clustered stubs.
  5. Be sure to remove unwanted branches before they get too thick (thickness of a pencil).

Finally… The Natural Look

So you might not know this but allowing your Crape Myrtle to grow into its natural shape has been the trend in recent years. So the good news is you can tell that to your neighbors and even better this approach requires little to no pruning.

It’s easy.. Just allow your plant to branch and spread naturally. Your Crape Myrtle will still bloom and be beautiful so long as it’s watered and fertilized properly

The bottom line is….

Crape Myrtles are one of the most resilient and prune-able plants I have ever seen. So its really just a matter of your preference how much time and effort you are willing to invest into heir pruning and care. There’s really no “wrong” way to do it, so experiment and have fun!

Meanwhile… I’ll leave you with a helpful how to video on pruning your Crape Myrtles.

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You may or may not have heard of the term “crape murder” prior to this, but if you’ve ever driven down the road and noticed trees that have been cut back to an extreme degree, then you’ve seen the unfortunate results of crape murder. The term refers to severely and improperly pruning back the tops of crape myrtles.

A natural growing, correctly pruned crape myrtle should maintain a beautiful shape with arching branches.

One of our Birmingham Account Managers, Chad Galloway, described crape myrtles as “a fantastic landscape plant because they bloom all summer, have a visually interesting branch structure and very few pest issues, and require little to no irrigation.” Crape myrtles, known for their colorful summer blooms and beautiful bark, are the most popular flowering tree in the American south. They are available in a wide array of flower colors including white, red, pink, and lavender. They are also, unfortunately, the most popular plant for being pruned entirely wrong.

The objectives of pruning a crepe myrtle are to maintain its natural form in order to produce strong branches that hold flowers upright and create a canopy in which air can circulate and all branches receive sunlight. Pruning should be performed around this time in late winter (late February–early March) when the tree is in its dormancy because it’s leafless and you can easily see all of the branches. When done correctly, pruning should enhance the tree’s natural shape, not disfigure it.

When pruned incorrectly, the beautiful tree does not develop to the fullest potential. Crape myrtles’ blooms are naturally large and long lasting and while it’s true that crape murder can result in larger blooms, those flowers will grow on thinner, weaker branches that will not be able to support them and droop and may even break. “This becomes an issue when the weight of rain makes the branches begin to sag into walking or driving paths” Chad said. The new profuse growth of branches also prevents air movement and sunlight to reach the inner branches, which can shorten the tree’s life. Aesthetically, the beautiful, delicate appearance of the crape myrtle’s branches, with or without flowers, will be ruined as large knobs appear where the trees have been trimmed incorrectly.

So, why do people continue to do this even though it’s actually hurting the longevity and health of their trees?

Usually, it’s a copycat crime. People see improper pruning all around town so they assume it’s the right thing to do for their own crape myrtles. Unfortunately, it’s not at all. Chad stated, “Don’t participate in crape murder just because your neighbors do.” Most crape myrtles may not even need to be pruned each year. If they do need trimming, and if it’s performed properly, minimum pruning is required. If the tree is pruned wrong, it will require even more pruning as the new growth of smaller branches sprout out all over the tree.

Another reason people seem to believe crape murder is a requirement is due to the tree’s large size interfering with parts of the property. If your tree is too big for its’ location, crape murder will never fix it. The truth is that the tree that was planted was too large to be planted in that area in the first place. Crape myrtle tree sizes can range anywhere from miniature trees starting at 18 inches to large trees reaching 30 feet tall. Tree nurseries will label the plants with this information, and it is just as important as your selections of flower color and bark appearance. As a rule of thumb, don’t cut to see over them, cut to see through them. Chad said, “As with all landscape designs and installations, the key is putting the right plant in the right place.” Large trees that are causing issues with the property will most likely need to be removed and replaced with a more suitably sized tree. Fortunately, even large crepe myrtles can be transplanted with success, and a landscape professional will be able to help you plant a replacement and move the large tree to a better-suited location.

What do you need to do if you’ve already committed crape murder? It’s never too late to stop pruning incorrectly. Renewal pruning, or cutting the tree’s base down to the ground, will allow the tree to have a fresh start, and it will rapidly grow back healthy and strong in two-three years.

Now that you know what not to do, here is the right way to prune a crape myrtle.

Once per year in the late winter, check for the following items:

  • The tree’s canopy needs to be raised for visual appeal and/or height clearance. Raising the canopy, or cutting branches that curve out too wide or hang too low gives the tree a slimmer appearance at the base that flares up at the top and allows air to better circulate. Try to remove unwanted branches before they get thicker than a pencil.
  • If the tree has branches that are dead, diseased, growing inward, or crossing other branches, remove them. Be sure to remove the weaker of any two crossing branches.
  • Unwanted seedheads can be cut off if desired for appearance, but it is unnecessary and will not hinder next year’s blooms.

That’s it! Stand back and look at your tree. If there are no dead or poorly placed thin branches sprouting out of the tree’s natural shape, you’re done. Proper pruning of crape myrtles should not be a time-consuming process and involves little, if any, cutting of thick branches or the main trunk. A well-pruned crape myrtle should not look like it has been “pruned” at all. “When pruned properly and allowed to grow to it’s full, natural height, a crape myrtle can be what brings a passerby’s eyes in the direction of your property,” Chad stated.

Before and After Proper Pruning:

Help us spread the word about crape murder and have a landscape professional come out to your property to help you properly plant or prune crape myrtles. Our team is happy to help answer any more questions you have about pruning crape myrtles or any other landscape questions. Contact us at the branch closest to you!

Removing crepe myrtles should only be undertaken under extreme caution. They’re tricky to remove. It’s best to remove a crepe myrtle before it grows to full height. Even then, it can be done, but you’re best bet is to hire a professional.

In this article, we will give you the procedure to remove a full grown crape myrtle. As you’ll see, it can be time-consuming and dangerous. You want to make sure you do it correctly so the crepe myrtle won’t keep coming back. Here are the steps.

  1. Use protective eye gear, thick work gloves and a mask. If using a chain saw, you’ll want to insert ear plugs. They’ll keep your ears safe. Remember – safety first.
  2. Apply an oil-soluble herbicide to the bark of an immature crepe myrtle. This is for trunks smaller than 6 inches in diameter. This special type of herbicide penetrates the waxy protective layer of the tree’s bark and will eventually travel to the roots, killing them. This is slower and, perhaps, a better alternative to cutting down the tree. Once it’s dead and rotted, you can easily remove the tree with a spade or shovel.
  3. If your crape myrtle’s trunk diameter is bigger than 12 inches, you’ll want to level it to the ground with a chain saw. For smaller trees, you’ll only have to make one pass. For larger trees, more than one is necessary. This is when you should consider hiring a tree professional like us.
  4. Drill evenly spaced holes in the remains of the trunk with a power drill.
  5. Pour a concentrated herbicide into the holes you made in the trunk. It will penetrate the crape myrtle’s vascular system and attack the roots from the inside. You should time the removal of the crepe myrtle and herbicide application to the tree’s growth phase. This occurs during the warmer seasons of the year. In cooler weather, the dormant roots make it harder for the herbicide to travel through the entire plant.
  6. Apply the concentrated herbicide to the flat top of the trunk with a paint brush.
  7. Dig up immature crape myrtles at the base of the tree with a spade or shovel. Remove the entire root system. This will prevent the tree from growing back from the roots. If you think you can properly handle this yourself, great. If not, we would suggest that you contact a tree service that removes crepe myrtles.
  8. Spray any shoots that appear in the location of the removed crape myrtle with broadleaf herbicide.

We want you to have a successful crepe myrtle removal regardless of how you remove it. We hope this information proves useful.

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