Garden Maintenance

Pruning: “Crape Murder” or “Ugly Myrtle”?

Although you may have heard the term “Crape Murder” used to describe the ruthless way many gardeners and landscapers prune their crape myrtles, the truth is that we rarely kill them with bad pruning practices – we just make them really UGLY.

Crape myrtles bloom on new wood.  That much is true. The fallacy is that they must be topped, cut back or otherwise severely man-handled so that they produce more blooms.  This cannot be further from the truth.  In fact the fastest way to ruin the naturally elegant shape of a crape myrtle is to top it.

My “Tonto” red crape myrtle has never been topped, and it is so heavy with blooms every summer that the branches hang 3 feet lower than when they were bare.  The trunk peels every year to reveal bark so smooth and sleek it feels like it has been sanded in a professional wood worker’s shop.  The mottled color of the bark is as beautiful in winter as its blooms were in summer.

'Tonto' Crape myrtle

My Tonto Crape myrtle has never been topped and it blooms heavily every year.

'Natchez' Crape Myrtle

The gorgeous mottled bark of this ancient “Natchez’ Crape myrtle has never been mangled from bad pruning practices.

Making cuts on branches that are any bigger in diameter than your pinkie finger, can cause scarring of branches that look like big fists. When you see trees that have had 2” to 3” diameter branches lopped off, you will see the new growth from these big cuts produce a broom of skinny, weak branches.  The overall look is like a bunch of oversized lollipops stuck into the ground.  Many of these little whips die, and you are left with a big fist of a scar, a mix of weak and dead whips coming out of it, and no more blooms than if you had left it alone!

Permanent scars on a badly pruned Crape myrtle.

You can see the permanent scars of every pruning cut made on these trunks. Someone paid a landscaper to climb 20’ up to turn this into an Ugly Myrtle.

Many gardeners have asked what to do about the zillions of messy whips that continually sprout from the base of their crape myrtle. I know immediately that they have been over pruning their trees.  Healthy trees that have not been abused do not have this problem.  The whips sprout at the top and bottom of the tree because it is trying to survive the damage you have caused.

Unfortunately there are several websites that will insist that you will get twice as many blooms from this kind of pruning and it is simply not true.  (Consider who those websites benefit.)

The beautiful shape of an un-pruned crape myrtle

Crape myrtles have a beautiful shape naturally. This one has never been topped. The seed pods on top only add to their winter beauty.

How to solve the pruning problem:

(1)   Buy the right plant. Depending on the variety, the Crape Myrtles you choose in the nursery may grow to be 5’ or 35’. Be sure to read the plant tag or do a Google search of the full botanical name to get an estimate of the mature height of the plant you are buying.  You can also find a gallery of photos and descriptions of many Crape Myrtle varieties at http://www.usna.usda.gov/PhotoGallery/CrapemyrtleGallery/ 

Crepe myrtles are well adapted to the cold of our Zone 7 climate, and most outgrow the height shown on their plant tags.  My beautiful “Tonto” Crape Myrtle reported to grow to 10’ tall is now at least 15’ after 10 years in the ground, however it is not the 30’ specimen I would have had I planted a “Natchez” Crape myrtle.For true dwarf varieties, try ‘Pokomoke’ or the “Dazzle” series of Crape myrtle shrubs.  Also check out fabulous new introductions such as “Pink Velour” with deep wine color new growth, and the “Black diamond” series with even darker foliage that highlights their various bloom colors, and of course my long-time favorite red ‘Dynamite’.

(2)   If you inherited a crape myrtle that is too big for the area it occupies, you can choose to cut it back heavily every year and keep your “ugly Myrtle”, or you can take it out and plant one that will be the right size without pruning.

(3)   If you have planted the right plant for your space, they only pruning you should have to do is to:

  • Cut out sucker shoots or whips that sprout from the base of the plant.
  • Remove branches that cross over each other or rub together. (February & March are good months to do this.)
  • You do NOT need to remove the seed pods from past years blooms. They will disappear as the new spring growth pops out.

The only real help your crape myrtle needs to be beautiful is proper planting in full sun, regular watering for the first year until it is established, and a 2-3” depth of mulch applied annually around the root zone. They are incredibly drought tolerant once established.

Crape myrtles can easily live 100 years.  Save your time and money and give your trees a chance to be naturally elegant and majestic for generations to come.

Ellen AshleyMe with Castor bean 9.11.15 cropped.resized
Educator, Speaker, Blogger & Gardening Enthusiast
Ellen Ashley teaches an annual program of “hands-on” gardening classes on her 10-acre property in Summerfield, NC.
Classes begin March 2, 2016.  See 2016 Course Schedule for details.
Contact her at ellen@www.learntogarden.net.