Pruning crepe myrtle trees

Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-by-Step

Southern Living

What concerns people most in the country right now? Losing their jobs? Losing their retirements? Nope. It’s how to properly prune their crepe myrtles Here’s a step-by-step guide showing how the Grumps prunes his.

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Why do you need my advice? Because a lot of you take guidance from your ignorant neighbors neighbors, who prune their crepe myrtles to look like this.

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This is what I call “crepe murder.” I didn’t invent the term. I think it was coined by Byers Nursery, a big wholesale grower of crepe myrtles in Huntsville, Alabama. I just did what we Americans have always done so well — pass off other’s good ideas as your own.

Crepe murder is bad for several reasons.

1. It turns beautiful trees into ugly stumps.

2. It prevents the formation of pretty, mottled bark on maturing trunks.

3. A forest of skinny, whip-like shoots sprouts from the end of each ugly stump. These whips are too weak to hold up the flowers, so the branches often bend to the ground, like a drunk who’s about to lose his lunch.

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The crepe myrtle you see above is deep-pink ‘Miami.’ I planted it in my front yard from a 3-gallon pot 15 years ago. I never pruned it much, because I strung it with tiny Xmas lights that I never took down. Leaving them on the tree reduced my Xmas decorating each year to 10 seconds. All I had to do was plug in the lights before Xmas and unplug them after. You could learn from this.

However, not being able to prune without cutting the light cords meant my crepe myrtle grew too dense and spread too wide. So last week, I took off the lights. Then, aided by my lovely unseen wife who agreed to take pictures, I finally pruned it to show you how it’s done and how a mature crepe myrtle is supposed to look. Murderers, take note!

Here is the crepe myrtle before I started. It doesn’t look too bad, but needs thinning. The tool leaning up against it is my trusty pole pruner. I like it because you can extend the pole to cut branches more than 15 feet from the ground.

Crepe Myrtle — Your Questions Answered

Objectives

Before you prune anything, it’s a good idea to know what you’re trying to accomplish. After all, you can always go back and cut more. You can’t go back and cut less. My objective was to maintain well-spaced, main trunks with handsome bark and to thin out out the center to permit easy penetration of sunlight and air. I always say if a bird can easily fly through the center of your crepe myrtle, the branches are spaced about right. If a bird can easily fly through the center of your house, you’re probably missing some windows.

Pruning Tools

To properly prune a mature crepe myrtle, you need three tools:

1. Hand pruners to clip twigs and branches less than 1/2-inch thick.

2. Loppers to cut branches 1/2-inch to 1-1/2 inches thick

3. Pole pruners or a pruning saw to cut branches more than 1-1/2 inches thick.

When to Cut

Late winter (right now) is the best time to prune a crepe myrtle, because it’s leafless and you can easily see all of the branches. It also blooms on new growth, so pruning now won’t reduce blooming. In fact, it may increase it.

What to Cut

Remove branches in the following order:

1. Suckers coming up from the base.

2. All side branches growing from the main trunks up to a height of at least 4 feet.

3. All higher branches growing inward towards the center of the tree.

4. All crossing, rubbing, and dead branches.

5. Branches growing at awkward angles that detract from the tree’s appearance.

Always cut back to a larger branch of the trunk. Don’t leave stubs. Removing seedheads on the end of branches is optional. Leaving them doesn’t reduce blooming. I leave mine.

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The Finished Product

Below is the result of this year’s pruning. Isn’t it purty? The crepe myrtle is still a little denser than I would like, but I can prune it again next winter. Every year, the job gets easier.

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More Crepe Murder Stuff

It’s the high crime of horticulture–the senseless, annual chopping back of beautiful crepe myrtles. Drive through any Southern neighborhood in early spring and, before long, you’ll encounter a spiritually fulfilled suburbanite, pruning saw in hand and a pile of crepe myrtle branches on the ground.

Why do well-intentioned gardeners keep repeating this crime? Some people think they need to prune off old seed heads to have blooms the following year. This is absolutely false. Others hack back these plants to keep them from getting too big. These folks need to remember that crepe myrtles are small trees, not foundation shrubs. If the plants seem to need pruning every other week to keep them from covering the windows or walk, they’re planted in the wrong place. Finally, crepe murder is a copycat crime. A lot of people engage in it because they see their neighbors doing it.

People shorten crepe myrtles by six feet or more, turning beautiful trunks into thick, ugly stubs. Repeated pruning to the same point creates gnarled, knobby “knuckles” on the ends of the trunks. A thicket of long, weak, whiplike branches then sprouts from each knuckle. These whips are too weak to support the flowers and hang straight down like cooked spaghetti.

Find out the mature height of a selection before planting it. If your crepe myrtle grows too big for its spot, move it to where it has more room. Or replace it with a dwarf or semidwarf selection. Prune only to maintain natural form. Select four or five well-spaced main trunks; remove any others at ground level. Train these trunks to grow upward and outward from the base of the plant. As they grow taller, gradually remove all side branches up to a height of four to five feet. This exposes the smooth, handsome bark. Early each spring, remove weak, spindly growth and all the branches that are growing in toward the center of the plant. Prune large branches back to a crotch. Never leave thick stubs.

Quick Pruning Tip For Crepe Myrtles

Remove branches that are too close together or that cross or rub each other. It is important not to prune the tops of crepe myrtle trees to make them bloom. Topping may yield larger flowers but does not increase the overall volume of blooms. Extreme topping often results in weak growth that tends to bend of break in summer rains.

Houseflies are the dumbest living things on Earth, literally incapable of learning anything, which makes me wonder sometimes if houseflies equipped with pruners have been savaging our neighborhood’s crepe myrtles. No matter how many times I tell folks not to chop their crepe myrtles into big, ugly stumps each spring, they do it anyway, maiming the beautiful trunks and ruining the natural treelike form. But perhaps “crepe murder” is a matter of taste, not intelligence. If so, here is a pruning task everyone can agree on. You know how a crepe myrtle typically sprouts a thicket of suckers at the base each spring? Reach down now, and pull them off at ground level. That will keep your crepe myrtle from turning into a thick, unkempt shrub. It will also prove to the world that you’re not a housefly. For most of us, that’s a good thing. — Steve Bender

When to Buy Crepe Myrtles

Select these trees while they are in bloom. Remember, they can vary greatly in size and bloom colors. Choose the right size for your landscape to help avoid the ultimate Southern gardening sin, “crepe murder” (severely pruning your tree to just a few sticks and ruining its natural form). Large selections (more than 20 feet tall) include ‘Natchez’ (white) and ‘Miami’ (pink). Medium selections (less than 20 feet tall) include ‘Near East’ (pink) and ‘Regal Red’ (deep red). Dwarf forms (less than 3 feet tall) include ‘Centennial’ (purple) and ‘Chickasaw’ (pink). Select a sunny location, and remember to mulch and water well to ease your tree into the landscape. Container-grown trees are easy to transport and transition into the garden well.

FYI: Crepe Myrtles in the Fall

Blaze into autumn with summer’s favorite tree.

When people think of crepe myrtles, they envision warm summer days and pink, red, lavender, and white flower clusters sagging in the sun. But look at these classic trees in fall, and you might be surprised. Brilliant blooms will be replaced by orange, red, and yellow foliage for an outstanding autumn show.

Color Through the Seasons

Crepe myrtles have rounded, light green leaves that emerge in the spring. As the weather warms, the foliage hardens off and turns dark green. Then, when the temperatures drop in the fall, leaves gradually transform from green to sparkling fall hues. Many gardeners select crepe myrtles by bloom colors, but you can also choose a plant by its fall foliage (see chart below).

Now is the perfect time to plant these beautiful trees, which come in many colors and sizes to fit your needs and space. ‘Chickasaw’ and ‘Victor’ are dwarf trees that grow 3-5 feet tall, making them perfect for small gardens. ‘Acoma,’ ‘Hopi,’ and ‘Zuni’ are small trees and will grow 7 to 10 feet high. These can be planted in tight areas where you want a tree but have little space. Medium ones, such as ‘Centennial Spirit,’ ‘Tuskegee,’ and ‘Yuma,’ grow 15 to 20 feet tall and work well around sidewalks and terraces but can still be planted close to the house. Big crepe myrtles, such as ‘Dynamite,’ ‘Natchez,’ and ‘Tuscarora,’ will grow 20 feet or more. They make excellent street trees and can be used in large yards. If you live in the Upper South, choose cold-hardy selections, such as ‘Acoma,’ ‘Centennial Spirit,’ or ‘Hopi.’

Growing Conditions

Crepe myrtles need full sun to perform well. They will grow in shade, but blooms will be sparse, and plants will get leggy. These hardy trees have few pest or disease problems, and they require little water and fertilizer.

Also, crepe myrtles need minimal pruning. Some gardeners top them annually, but this ruins their natural shape and beauty. Remove the sucker growth that sometimes appears around the base. Only prune to shape trees or to take out any cross branching. In the winter, you can remove old seedpods by clipping the tips of branches.

Summer blooms and fall colors make crepe myrtles a garden favorite. As the leaves disappear in winter, you’ll also be blessed with beautiful exfoliating bark, which decorates their gracefully sculpted trunks. For year-round interest, remember this Southern classic. Plant one now, and watch your tree change with the seasons. — Charlie Thigpen

Selection

Size

Fall Color

Bloom

‘Acoma’

10 feet

Purple-red

White

‘Centennial Spirit’

20 feet

Red-orange

Dark red

‘Chickasaw’

3 to 5 feet

Bronze-red

Pink-lavender

‘Dynamite’

20 or more feet

Red-orange

Cherry red

‘Hopi’

7 feet

Orange-red to dark red

Pink

‘Natchez’

30 feet

Orange-red

Pure white

‘Tuscarora’

25 feet

Red-orange

Dark pink

‘Tuskegee’

20 feet

Bright orange-red

Deep pink to red

‘Victor’

3 feet

Reddish yellow

Dark red

‘Yuma’

15 feet

Yellowish to brownish red

Medium lavender

‘Zuni’

9 feet

Orange-red to dark red

Medium lavender

CHALK UP A WIN OVER ALKALINE SOIL WITH CREPE MYRTLES

Not all soils in the South pass the acid test. Some turn oak trees yellow and cause the leaves of azaleas and gardenias to become yellow between the veins. These soils do this because they’re alkaline.

What’s alkaline soil? It’s soil with a pH above the neutral point of 7 (a pH below 7 is considered acid). It typically occurs in regions with sparse rainfall, such as West and North Texas and western Oklahoma. But it also occurs where beds of ancient limestone lie just beneath the surface. This is why people often refer to alkaline soil as “limy” or “chalky.” Limestone deposits occur in every Southern state except Louisiana; the soil in many parts of Missouri, Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida is alkaline.

Alkaline soil affects plants by increasing the availability of some soil nutrients while holding back on others. For example, alkaline soil supplies plants with plenty of calcium and magnesium. But it’s stingy with zinc, manganese, and sulfur. These shortfalls can stunt certain plants. The major nutrient most commonly deficient in high pH soil is iron. Lack of iron causes chlorosis (yellow leaves with green veins). Severe chlorosis eventually kills plants.

WATCH: What’s Wrong With My Crepe Myrtle? 4 Common Problems

To determine for sure whether your soil is alkaline, have it tested. You’ll find simple soil-test kits at garden centers, nurseries, and home supply stores. If you discover your soil is indeed alkaline, you have two options. The first is to completely replace the existing soil with acid soil, so you can grow acid-loving plants. But this is laborious and expensive and seldom succeeds over time. A far better solution is simply to select plants that like alkaline soil. There are lots to choose from and many are carefree, drought-tolerant native plants.

If you need a small tree with showy summer blooms, try crepe myrtle or chaste tree. Both tolerate drought and are easy to grow.

Crape Myrtle

September 30, 2017

Is it too late for me to trim crape myrtles and red top photinias? I also have some large woody plants that are growing around my back yard that I have cut back but they just seem to be doing better than ever. I have heard that you put salt on them to kill them. Is it rock salt, how do you do it without killing everything around it?

The time to prune crape myrtles is in February, before new growth begins. Pruning them in the fall can expose them to winter damage if we have a cold winter. The key is to get them through the bulk of the winter before pruning. If your red top photinia just needs a light trim, that is fine to do now, but severe pruning–removing more than 1/3 of the plant should be done in the spring; you don’t want to encourage too much new growth this late in the season. I do not like to use salt to kill plants, as salt will stay in the soil for a long time and can leach out and damage nearby root systems. Once you cut the trees down, you can paint the stumps with an herbicide such as Brush-B-Gon, Brush Killer or Roundup Super Concentrate. Monitor these trees next spring as new growth begins, and if you see new growth repeat the above process.

January 30, 2016

My husband is eager to prune our crape myrtles and our fig trees. I think you said to wait until February to do this. Please advise.

Since we finally have had some winter weather, I think it is important to wait until late February before pruning, especially to prune your fig tree. If you prune it too early, you expose more of the plant to potential damage. The past two winters have not been kind to fig trees, and I would make sure they are out of the woods from winter weather before pruning. I don’t think it is a bad idea to even wait until March, depending on what the rest of the winter brings. I have seen many crape myrtles already butchered, and even when pruned properly you still have a more unattractive plant when pruned than when it is full of limbs. Early pruning does expose more of the plant to winter injury should we get any severe weather, so tell him to be patient.

November 2014

Last year I asked about trimming crape myrtles and you sent me a picture of how it should look after trimming. My husband did a great job of following the picture. However, we did not get any blooms this year while all of our neighbors, who murdered theirs, have prolific blooms. What did we do wrong?

Normally pruning alone does not interfere with blooming, unless you prune late in the growing season—they bloom on new growth. How much sunlight do the plants receive? As you saw, severe pruning (crape murder) doesn’t hurt blooming, but often the blooms are produced on such weak stems that they become weeping crape myrtles instead of upright forms. Proper pruning also should not impact or prevent flowering, but should have the blooms on upright stems. Many crape myrtles were later blooming this year due to the milder season, but eventually they did bloom.

October 2012

My husband and I are going to trim the crepe myrtles on Military Dr in NLR for the Amboy Neighborhood Association. When is the best time to trim crepe myrtles? Also, can the bushy ones be thinned down to three or four stalks and trimmed up like trees?

The best time to prune crape myrtles is before new growth begins in the spring—typically late February. It is preferable to trim a standard variety as a tree, instead of a bush, but it can take a few years to change.

January 2012

I have several Crape Myrtles from three to six feet tall. They all froze last winter. I cut them down to the ground, as instructed by our local nursery owner, and they came back beautifully in the spring and produced beautiful flowers that lasted a long time in the late summer, with several different periods of bloom. When is the best time of year to cut them back again and at what height to achieve the same production and growth as last year?

If you have standard crape myrtles then try pruning them into a tree again. Choose three to five of the straightest and strongest sprouts and prune everything else out in late February to mid March. Then take off anything smaller than a pencil in diameter. Eventually they will grow back into trees, provided they don’t get frozen again.

October 2010

I need to know what to do about off-shoots from crape myrtles that will not kill the mother tree. I have a tree that is probably 30-40 years old and from its wandering root system, shoots appear every year and this year some are blooming. For years I have just cut them off, but wonder if there is a product that I can use to control them without harm to the main tree.

Continue doing what you are doing. There is nothing you could spray with that would kill the sprouts but not hurt the mother plant. Most of these suckers are attached to the mother plant. Some varieties are more prone to suckering than others, so just cut each season.

February 2010

After several years of trimming my crape myrtles back, there is a large knot where the new growth comes out each year. Should I continue to trim as in the past or should I cut the tree below the knot or does it really make any difference? They are mature and the knots are about 5 feet high.

If you have those gnarly knots or knees, then you are not trimming your crape myrtles, you are butchering them. Cutting them back to those ugly knots or every year encourages loads of new sprouts which grow rapidly then fall over under the weight of the flowers. The key if you have standard crape myrtles is to allow them to grow into graceful trees. You have two options since you have the knots. You can either cut them out or gradually let them outgrow it, cutting off everything less than a pencil in diameter and thinning out the number of branches emerging from the knots to no more than three branches. For those starting with young crape myrtles, the best way to achieve a beautiful tree is to leave three to five main trunks, making sure that there is ample room between each trunk to achieve mature size and width. Let the trunks grow to a height of five to six feet before pruning and then start shaping them into a tree. Depending on the variety, your crape myrtle can be a ground cover Lagerstroemia ‘Razzle Dazzle’, a dwarf getting no more than 3-4 feet or a standard growing 20-30 feet tall. Know what you want before you buy them, and then allow them to grow into what they were supposed to be. An excellent database on crape myrtles—heights, colors, etc is on our extension website at: http://www.uaex.edu/yard-garden/resource-library/crape-myrtle/ .

March 2005

Is it too late to prune crape myrtles? My neighbor pruned hers in November, and I just have not had time to get it done. The trees are ten feet or more in height, and I see them 3-4 feet all over town. Help!

You have probably all heard of the “rape of the crapes” or “crape murder”, and that is what I think is occurring whenever the plants are sheared back to three or four feet. If you are growing a standard crape myrtle, it has the potential to be a small tree, growing up to 20 feet or more. Let it grow up! They have outstanding peeling bark, and interesting branching patterns. If you don’t have room for it to reach its mature size, consider moving it to a location where it does. Blooming may not be as large per stem with taller plants, but you will have more blossoms and they won’t cause the branches to droop over, and you get the benefit of mature bark. To answer your question, it is not too late to prune crape myrtles, but please don’t butcher them. You do want to prune to make sure you have good branching structure, and that you keep a fairly open plant, but yearly shearing is not good!

February 2008

I have heard your response on how to properly prune a crape myrtle, but I have one unanswered question. We purchased a house with several crape myrtles that have already been cut back to that loathsome four foot height. All small branches have been removed and each crape myrtle has about five main trunks. If I want to let them grow as you recommend, should I cut all the branches back to ground level in one fell swoop or will that kill the plant? I don’t want the pollarded look at the four foot height, and I don’t want to aggressively prune the crape myrtle every year. I suspect the plants are ten to fifteen years old.

It is February, so it is the proper month to prune a crape myrtle. Unfortunately, if you have a tree that has been butchered in the past, it is not a quick fix. You do have some options. One would be to do as you ask, and start over by cutting the plant to the ground. This will take time to restructure the tree. If you do this, choose three to five sprouts that appear, and prune out everything else. Gradually shape it into a tree. The other option is to cut out the knobs and then choose one sprout that appears from that point this growing season and grow it into a tree, or prune to the strongest branch that is growing above the knob and let it become a true branch, cutting out all the other twigs from that knob.

September 2009

We set out crape myrtle trees this summer. When is the best time to trim the lower branches so that it will bush out more at the top? They have done very well.

Pruning lower limbs is not going to have much impact on branching at the top of the plants. Removing lower limbs gives you more of a tree like appearance, but to encourage better branching at the top, prune to buds on upper branches to encourage fullness. Pruning of crape myrtles should be done in late February to early March.

December 2009

I have what I think are several dwarf crepe myrtles in the flower beds around my home. They grow in a bushy mounded shape and I would like to prune them back some. (They are bare right now.) When is the best time to prune them? What is the correct way to prune them? I know how to prune my large tree-like crepe myrtles, but I have never pruned the dwarf variety.

Dwarf crape myrtles never produce beautiful bark like their tree-like counterparts, so correct pruning is not as much of an issue here. I still prefer to wait until late February to prune them for added winter protection, but you can prune them back by half or more every year. The key here is to encourage new growth, keep them in the height range you want and let them bloom on the new growth. With some of the newer varieties of dwarf crape myrtles they are grown as ground covers and spread wider than they do tall.

January 2010

We have a crepe myrtle that has not been trimmed for 20 years. It has branched out at least 20 feet wide with many stems (or trunks) some of which are four inches in diameter and the base is probably 30 inches in diameter. It must stand 12-15 feet tall. How do we trim it back? When do we cut back? Where do we start? Another crepe myrtle nearby is much smaller but is beginning to spread the same way. How should it be trimmed?

Crape myrtles come in a variety of mature sizes from ground covers to mature trees getting 25-35 feet tall. My preference is if you have the standard tree forms that you allow them to be trees. I like three to five main trunks and everything else pruned out. Then shape them with a good branching structure. Twenty feet wide is more a large bush. Thinning them out and reshaping may take time, but at least they aren’t cut back to those ugly knobs every year. The best time to prune is late February to mid March after the bulk of winter weather has passed.

February 2010

We recently moved into a house with six well established crape myrtles in the front yard. The problem is that they have been whacked on pretty bad and have huge ugly knots. They have flowered well but still have knots that just look disgusting during the winter months. Should I get out the big saw and cut these trees back below the knots or are they supposed to be cut above the knots or what? I’ve watched your pruning video but nothing is mentioned about trees that a person “inherits” which have been butchered. I’m a newbie with these beautiful trees and would like to clean up the mess that has been made and give them a chance to start over. Can you possibly give me some very detailed instructions for how to make them look good again?

You have a couple of options. One is to cut off the horrid knots, and then when multiple sprouts begin growing this spring, choose two to three of the sprouts and prune all the others off. Then next spring, prune off anything smaller than a pencil in diameter and gradually grow some taller stronger branches. The other option is to leave the knots but choose three of the strongest branches that are growing from them, and prune off everything else. Eventually you can restructure them into beautiful trees which are as pretty in the winter as in the summer and fall, but it will take several years.

September 2007

I need some help and information regarding our crape myrtle. Before we moved into our new home in September the builder planted a crape myrtle tree and it was blooming beautifully. The crape myrtle started to leaf out this spring and then we got hit with another hard freeze; the trees new growth was killed off. It finally started growing again in the spring from the bottom up, but it had a lot of dead branches on top. My husband cut the dead branches off, but since then the tree has not bloomed. Did he prune the tree incorrectly to discourage the blooms? We live in Bentonville.

You aren’t alone in the damage to crape myrtles. They were damaged somewhat statewide, but annihilated in Northwest Arkansas. They were well ahead of their normal schedule due to the mild March, so the late freezes did even more damage. For now, you simply must be patient and gradually retrain them into trees. Many crape myrtles bloomed more sparsely than normal if at all this summer. What I like to see in a crape myrtle are three to five main trunks and branching beginning about five to six feet off the ground. Prune as needed next February.

April 2007

I read all your wonderful info I could find on crepe myrtles, however, I didn’t see this answer. It is now March and I have arrived home to find my crepe myrtles leafing out. I wanted to prune them back, but do I dare do it now with new growth on them? I need to as they are taking over our home.

While it is true that we like to get the crape myrtles pruned prior to new growth beginning, this year things got moving a little quicker than normal. You can still prune without impacting the first blooms by much, but do it soon. The later you prune a summer blooming plant like crape myrtle, the later your first set of blooms may be since they bloom on their new growth. Make sure you know why you are pruning and don’t butcher them into ugly knobs. I have seen the worse forms of crape “murder” this year than ever. Let these wonderful trees produce large trunks and let them become trees if you have room for them to grow.

June 2006

We moved here from Colorado and had a landscaper do some work in our yard last summer. I like the Crepe Myrtles and wanted some in my flower bed next to house. He said they would do fine there since they can be pruned back to whatever shape desired. Since then I have had neighbors say they do much better away from house so they can grow larger. The ones put in are not the small-type-bushes, they are the larger bushes. Should I move them away from house and give them more space in yard? Does it damage Crepe Myrtles to prune them back each year keeping them at a smaller size? Also, would it damage them to move them as they were planted July, 2005? Just not sure if these Crepe Myrtles will get too big in 3 to 5 years. There are 7 of them next to house. Any help you can give me will be much appreciated. I also learned to check out landscapers a lot better in future.

It is quite obvious from the butchered crape myrtles all over the south that crape myrtles can be severely pruned each year with no loss of life, but I am with your neighbors in that they will be more attractive plants if they are given space to grow and allowed to do so. Standard crape myrtles have outstanding bark if they are allowed to become trees and their floral display is nothing to sneeze at. There are dwarf varieties that can and often should take severe pruning each year, and they might be good replacements. Crape myrtles can be moved, and yours are still young. I would have preferred to move them in February, but it can still be done now, if you are prepared to water and allow them to wilt and look sad for a week or two. Crape myrtles aren’t the only “trees” that some landscapers plant as foundation plantings. I cringe when I see river birch and Bradford pears planted next to a house–they are large trees at maturity!

March 2005

Can I cut back the forsythia after it blooms? And isn’t it time to cut back the Rose of Sharon bushes, crepe myrtles and butterfly bushes?

Forsythia should be pruned after bloom. Remove one third of the old canes down at the soil line to encourage new growth. There is still time to prune Rose-of-Sharon, crape myrtle and butterfly bush, as all of these plants bloom on the current season growth. Try to do it soon since new growth is beginning.

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Pruning Crepe (Crape) Myrtles

Q. What is the best time to prune crepe myrtle and what are the basic guidelines on how to do it?

    —Joe in Howell, NJ & Percy in Memphis, TN

I thought I heard you advise to prune Crepe Myrtles down to a “stub”. I have three Crepe Myrtles, each about 13 feet high. How many feet should I cut them down to?

    —Ed in Oklahoma City

I didn’t heed your advice to prune my crepe myrtles in the fall. What can I do now to produce flowers for this summer; or must I wait another season?

    —Stephanie in Voorhees, NJ

A. After more than 20 years in this business, I’ve come to believe that it must be a common human condition to hear advice in reverse. SO many people send me emails or come up to me at speaking gigs and say “I know you told us to get our grass seed down early in the Spring” or “I know you told us to prune in the fall, but…” when, of course, I have been saying the exact opposite about both topics for decades.

Although many people seem to develop a dire urge to go on a pruning spree in the fall:

  1. it is never necessary; there is NO plant anywhere on this planet whose health or blooming is improved by fall pruning;
  2. it is often counter-productive; fall pruning limits or outright destroys the upcoming show on plants that bloom in the Spring, like azaleas, lilacs, forsythia and rhododendrons; And
  3. it is potentially damaging—perhaps even fatal—to any plant. Pruning stimulates growth; pruning a plant that’s trying to go dormant for the winter forces it to grow instead, sapping the plant of energy it may desperately need to survive, and creating weak new growth that’s extremely prone to winter injury.

So—congratulations to everyone who “forgot” to prune their plants last fall.

However, I must here confess that I did say it was ok to cut crepe myrtle stems down to a “stub” on a show that aired many years back. I knew that the plants were summer bloomers, flowered on new growth and, like butterfly bush, could survive a hard pruning…

Then a legion of extension agents around the country wrote and called to implore me to retract this advice and instead beg people not to commit what they had come to call “crepe murder”, explaining that while the practice did seem to fill the need that many gardeners have for committing acts of over-the-top operatic horticultural violence, it made for a pretty sad plant after a while—unless you like the look of spindly shoots rising out of elephant-sized legs.The time to prune a crepe myrtle is late winter through early Spring, with the most sound advice being to wait until the plant begins to put out its first new growth of the season, but not much longer. And while whacking the poor thing back to the ground isn’t advised, some pruning is. Virtually everyone agrees that a little haircut in early Spring will induce a crepe myrtle to produce more flowers that summer.

So that’s the basic answer: a little trim to remove the tips of branches is all you’d want to do on a tree or shrub that has a nice pleasing shape and hasn’t outgrown its spot. And the further North crepe myrtles are grown, the more these Southern favorites are also going to suffer a little inevitable winter injury—especially after the kind of slap-you-silly winter many of us just had—so any damaged portions should also be removed.

Now we get to optional pruning, personal choice and whether or not you bought the crepe myrtle you should have. The original form of the plant—a deciduous tree originally from Asia—grows naturally to 25 or 30 feet tall and develops a very open shape when left unpruned. There are also dwarf varieties that top out at a very tidy six to eight feet, semi-dwarfs that are about twice that tall, and new ‘minis’ that are said to stay very small and shrub-like without much pruning.

Unless you have no choice (i.e., you planted or inherited a standard size tree that has dramatically outgrown its space), the best pruning keeps a fairly natural shape to the plant while following the basic rules for woody plants: Completely remove some of the oldest wood by cutting it back low, remove branches that are crossing or rubbing against each other, and maybe take some out of the center to improve airflow—especially if the plant is in a crowded spot or it’s become a tangled mess.

Again, the natural habit for most crepe myrtles is to have a fairly shrubby appearance and shape, but some people want to make them look more like their idea of a true tree. In his classic garden tome, “The Pruning Book” (published by Taunton Press) our old friend Lee Reich describes a multi-year process that involves careful pruning out of smaller, secondary branches to gradually reveal a single trunk that achieves this goal.

Whatever you choose to do, always try and follow the 1/3 rule—don’t remove more than one-third of the growth in any one season. If you want to dramatically reshape a crepe, do it over the course of several seasons. Oh, and don’t be a crepe murderer! (Or if you DO, please don’t say I told you to!)

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