Wally Steinhauser on Pruning Crape Myrtles
If you live in the South, along with Magnolia and Dogwood trees, Crape Myrtles are another quintessential Southern plant for your landscape. There are many different varieties and their summer blooms are sure to add character to a landscape; January or February is the time to prune them so that they will put out a burst of growth in the spring.
There are many opinions and techniques about pruning Crape Myrtles. We at Wingard’s Market believe in lightly pruning the plant so that it may retain its natural growth pattern and shape. This can be done using sharp pruners or loppers to take off the seed heads, located on the end of the branches, if they can be reached. Otherwise, a tall ladder or some type of long-reach pruner may be required. If not pruned, the seed heads will fall to the ground later in the winter, where they will likely sprout, which they are prone to do. Plus, this approach allows removal of new “twigs” that may have sprouted and begin to grow.
In addition to pruning the seed heads, it is also best to prune inward-growing branches. As they grow, inward-growing branches may rub against other branches, opening wounds for disease. Plus, they will compete for growth, and one of them will eventually need to be pruned. Diseased or dead branches should also be removed.
It is possible that over time, that the plant has grown over a walkway and needs to be limbed up to allow people to walk underneath. If this is the case, follow the above approach, but do not remove the vertical, “skeleton” trunks that form the basis of the plants shape. In general, the harsher a plant is pruned, the hardier its growth in the spring. However, a general rule is to not prune more than 25% of the plant.
Another technique, which is not recommended, but often seen, is to prune the plant heavily by topping the trunk(s), which is also referred to as “crape murder,” as shown in the photos. This approach halts the tree from growing into its natural shape and makes it look as though it has “knuckles full of arthritis” over time. It’s a rather simple process, which is sometimes done with a chainsaw, straight across the trunk(s).
Years ago, perhaps 20, this Sioux Crape Myrtle was “crape murdered” with a chainsaw. While it is still hardy, healthy and blooms on a regular basis, the first photo shows the different “murdered” locations and the second, up close photo shows one of the “arthritised knuckles.”