Pruning is the most effective way to maximize healthy growth and annual flower production from your crepe myrtle. It’s also something countless home gardeners mess up without realizing they’re doing anything wrong.
If you’re unsure about how and when to prune a crepe myrtle, You’ll be pleased to learn that you’re not alone. It isn’t something we’re born knowing after all. But it is definitely something you can and should learn if you want yours to look its best.
Below you’ll find the answers to how and when to prune a crepe myrtle, plus some of my favorite tips for achieving a stronger and more beautiful-looking specimen.
- Best Time Of Year To Prune Crepe Myrtle
- Ideal Shape For Crepe Myrtle
- Pruning Tips
- FAQ Pruning Crepe Myrtles
Best Time Of Year To Prune Crepe Myrtle
Crepe myrtles should be pruned very early in the spring. Pruning should be done while the tree is still in winter dormancy before it starts putting out new growth.
Pruning during dormancy helps prevent the spread of disease, fungi, and insects when the tree is most vulnerable.
Crepe myrtles are one of many perennials that bloom exclusively on new growth. So pruning too late in the spring removes buds that would have eventually turned into flowers.
Some gardeners prune their crepe myrtles in the fall — I don’t personally recommend this. Fall pruning should only be done to remove dead or damaged branches. Not for overall structure or shaping.
Do Crepe Myrtles Need Trimming Every Year?
For many varieties, pruning is entirely optional. Many gardeners opt to prune their crepe myrtles only as needed.
If you feel that your crepe myrtles are maintaining an attractive and well-balanced shape on their own, and are putting out healthy growth, there’s no need to prune every year.
What Happens If You Don’t Cut Back Crepe Myrtle?
Crepe myrtles that are never pruned can become overgrown and unbalanced. This may or may not affect the tree’s health over time.
An untrimmed specimen can quickly outgrow the available space both physically and aesthetically.
One way these trees spread is by putting out multiple trunks. So a crepe myrtle that is not regularly pruned may choke out the other plants around it.
Ideal Shape For Crepe Myrtle
A well-pruned crepe myrtle should look like a tidier, more symmetrical version of its original self.
The tree’s primary trunks and branches should still be intact. Smaller limbs around the crown should be thinned out but not entirely removed.
According to NC State University, pruning should not affect a crepe myrtle’s total height.
Avoiding ‘Crepe Murder’
Many well-intentioned gardeners wrongly believe that cutting crepe myrtle branches down to the trunk is the correct way to encourage future growth and flower production.
This practice is often referred to as ‘crepe murder’. It is defined by pruning off the entire top of the tree right down to the trunk or trunks. This common gardening faux pas is very easy to spot on the landscape.
The best strategy to avoid committing crape murder is to always prune conservatively!
Problems Caused By ‘Crepe Murder’
Aggressive pruning is detrimental to nearly all species. It just so happens that crepe myrtles are more often victims of this practice than other trees and shrubs.
Crepe Myrtle which has been subjected to this heavy-handed approach can take years to recover. It can certainly affect the aesthetics of your tree and can cause damage to the overall health of this beautiful species.
The good news is that crepe murder rarely kills the tree outright. It can, however, cause serious issues like:
- Weak, drooping branches
- Unattractive shape
- Fewer leaves and flowers
- Thin bark
- Increased risk of sunscald
“Just prune your crepe myrtle to achieve the shape you want but not too much or you’ll commit crepe myrtle!”
Is that advice accurate? Yes. Will it help the average home gardener successfully prune their crepe myrtle? Probably not.
To achieve the healthy, beautiful crepe myrtle of your dreams, you need to strike a balance between aesthetics and the tree’s well-being. This balance can be found by following a few simple (yet crucial) steps:
- Start pruning early on in the plant’s life
- Commit to a shape that suits your landscape
- Always leave the strongest branches intact
- Remove old or damaged limbs as soon as possible
- Avoid over-pruning the topmost branches
- Invest (and learn to use) the right tools for the job
1) Decide on A Style
Pruning can help you achieve multiple looks for your crepe myrtle. Most pruning styles can be categorized as single-trunk, multi-trunk, or natural.
Keep in mind that shaping your crepe myrtle to achieve a certain look is a long-term commitment. You’ll see the best results by starting early, and you will need to maintain your work throughout the tree’s lifetime.
The Single Trunk
Single-trunk crepe myrtles boast a classic tree shape with a beautiful bunch of foliage and flowers at the top. But you may be surprised to learn that crepe myrtles do not grow this way all on their own.
Training a young crepe myrtle to grow this way can be hard work. Once you establish a strong and healthy central trunk, however, it becomes incredibly easy to maintain.
To keep your single-trunk crepe myrtle looking great, be sure to remove any suckers that emerge around the base. Trim away lower limbs when they first appear on the trunk to maintain the tree’s shape.
Multi-trunk crepe myrtles have a softer appearance than their more manicured single-trunk counterparts. This shape is the one most often associated with landscape crepe myrtles.
The secret to creating a multi-trunk crepe myrtle is allowing some of those suckers to grow into full-fledged trunks. Select a few suckers with optimal placement, growth direction, and size to keep while pruning the rest away. According to the University of Florida, limiting your crepe myrtle to five or fewer trunks is ideal.
How far up the trunks you clear away branches is up to you. As long as you prune away any branches that grow inward or rub against each other, you can let the length of each trunk bush out a bit.
Pruning a multi-trunk crepe myrtle is not as labor-intensive as a single-trunk specimen. Yet your ability to prune with a discerning eye will still have a big impact on the tree’s overall shape and health!
The Natural Look
Bushy, natural-looking crepe myrtle is the easiest to maintain. To achieve this look, let your crepe myrtle grow unimpeded as it fills the available space.
Letting your crepe myrtle grow wild does not necessarily mean foregoing pruning altogether. Remove dead or damaged limbs from the tree as needed to encourage healthy growth and maintain structural integrity.
It’s also a good idea to thin out the body of your crepe myrtle — no need to change the shape as a whole — to improve airflow and sun exposure within the tree’s inner branches.
2) Understanding Where To Cut
Before you can perfect the shape of your crepe myrtle, you need to know where to cut the branches themselves.
If you’re new to pruning trees and shrubs, two of the most important things to understand are branch collars and nodes.
Branch collars are the raised, calloused areas where a tree’s trunk and central branches meet. When pruning, do not cut into the branch collar itself. Instead, make your cut slightly above it.
Nodes are the portions of a branch that produce new growth, including stems, leaves, and flowers. Nodes can sometimes be hard to identify — look for sections that are slightly thicker than the stem around them.
The ideal place to cut a branch is slightly above the nearest node. As with branch collars, be careful not to cut into the node tissue itself.
Consider Shape And Aesthetics
As you address structural issues within your crepe myrtle’s limbs, you should also be considering the big picture.
Skillful pruning will result in a tree that is both structurally sound and aesthetically balanced.
Achieving the goal shape as you prune is deceptively simple. Go slow and step back every few cuts to identify areas of imbalance and check your progress.
Removing Lower Branches
Pruning the bottommost branches of your crepe myrtle can improve the shape. It can also be a practical choice, especially if your crepe myrtle grows near a walkway or alongside smaller landscape plantings.
Keep in mind that branch height is relative to the overall plant size. Standard mature crepe myrtle cultivars can have lower branches removed up to 8 feet from the ground. Dwarf varieties should be delimbed much more conservatively.
Pruning Weak or Old Growth
Removing weak or damaged growth is extremely beneficial for plant health. Identifying and cutting these branches should be your top priority before addressing the more detailed aspects of shaping.
Any and all damaged branches should be removed. Trees cannot repair damaged limbs and leaving them in place will only put the rest of the crepe myrtle at risk.
To the untrained eye, old growth can look very similar to newer, healthy branches. Here are a few tips to identify dead or dying limbs in need of removal:
- Lack of green foliage in spring and summer
- Deadfall foliage that does not drop with the rest of the tree’s leaves
- Peeling bark that exposes smooth wood underneath
- Large fungal growths
Performing a simple scratch test can also reveal if a branch is dead or simply dormant.
Thinning out involves pruning away some of a tree’s central branches without affecting the overall shape. A good rule of thumb is to prune away limbs that cross, touch, twist, or are generally crowded.
Do not remove thick, healthy branches — particularly from the top of the tree — unless they are directly impeding on each other. Doing so will impact the crepe myrtles’ ability to bloom and produce flowers, as well as adversely affect the strength of the tree, and overall shape.
The most obvious benefit of strategically thinning crepe myrtle limbs is increased sun exposure. Removing dense branches ensures that the innermost leaves receive adequate sunlight.
Thinning out tree branches also improves airflow. Proper airflow is essential to preventing many fungal diseases in plants.
When To Prune New Growth Suckers
Spring is a great time to clean up suckers that have emerged since the previous growing season. You should also remove suckers as they appear throughout the year.
The sooner growth suckers are removed the less of an impact they will have in your crepe myrtle and the surrounding landscape.
When pruning suckers, the goal is to leave as little material behind as possible. I recommend cutting level with the soil or even poking your pruners into the soil and severing the sucker beneath the surface. This technique will result in a cleaner appearance and protect the open cut from infection.
Trimmed suckers should be left to scab over naturally. There’s no need to seal the wound (doing so can actually trap pathogens inside).
3) Pruning Tools
The ideal tool for pruning any tree is sharp, clean, and appropriately sized for the job. In some cases, you may need more than one pruning tool to achieve the best results.
Hand pruners are lightweight, easy to use, and can be found in most gardeners’ arsenals. Depending on the size of your hand pruners, they can be used to cut away branches up to 1/2 or 3/4 inches thick.
Use hand pruners to remove suckers as they first emerge from the soil around your crepe myrtle. This tool is also ideal for shaping and thinning out smaller limbs in the tree’s canopy.
Particularly small crepe myrtle saplings may require little more than a pair of hand pruners for the first couple of growing seasons.
Loppers for cutting tree branches are larger, heavier pruning shears that can handle woody branches between 1 and 2 inches thick on average.
If you can only invest in one high-quality pruning tool for your crepe myrtle right now, this is what I recommend. While it can be hard to maneuver a set of loppers between tight branches, they can also be used on smaller limbs if necessary.
As the name implies, a pole saw is a toothed blade attached to a long, sturdy pole. Electric pole saws can handle branches ranging from 1 ½ to several inches in diameter.
Pole saws come in a variety of sizes and styles. While a manual pole saw is appropriate for most home gardeners, electric- and gas-powered models are also available.
Instead of relying on a ladder to reach your crepe myrtle’s highest branches, I suggest using a pole saw. Just note that pole saws require a bit more upper-body strength than hand pruners or loppers.
You can also cut away branches that are too thick for your loppers with this tool (invest in a pole saw with an adjustable handle for the best results).