How to Prune a Crepe Myrtle

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This article originally appeared in the Warren Record.

The other day I was having a beer with Martha Stewart.

No wait, it was coffeee….Yes, I was having a cup of coffee.

And not Martha Stewart. It was Magnolia Stellata, Master Gardener Extraordinaire (names changed to protect the innocent).

So, I was having a cup of coffee with Magnolia Stellata, and we were discussing how to get away with the perfect crime.

And by “perfect crime” we meant a crime with zero chance of a single minute of jail time. And a fine no greater than eighteen dollars.

Yes, we live on the edge.

In any case, after much debate, we settled on [cue dramatic music] Crepe Murder!
Crepe murder is the silly practice of hacking the tops off of crepe myrtles in the mistaken belief that it makes them bloom more. And to be honest, the horticultural legal code should probably be amended to call it “crepe assault” because the the trees don’t actually die.

But whatever you call it, if you’re going to do it, a moonless night is preferable. You may want to paint your pruning tools black for full effect, and wear night vision goggles.

Or at least do it when no Master Gardeners or Extension Agents or Horticulturists are nearby, because we are likely to stage a protest, chaining ourselves to the tree. Or maybe just make a snide comment under our breath. Very quietly, because we don’t actually want to make a scene or seem judgemental or unneighborly. After all, it’s your tree.

But the crime of “pruning” (and I use the term loosely) crepe myrtles that way is that you miss out on two-thirds of the true beauty of the tree. Yes, the flowers are very nice, but the overall form of a properly shaped crepe myrtle is very attractive. The smooth trunks also look nice when allowed to keep growing. These latter two characteristics can add a lot of beauty to your landscape, especially in the winter.

To achieve that look, you have to start by selecting the right cultivar (and there are dozens of different crepe myrtle cultivars). Factors to consider include bloom color, powdery mildew resistance, and perhaps most importantly, size at maturity. In fact, many people are forced to prune their crepe myrtles aggressively every year because they were planted in the wrong spot (e.g. under power lines, or too close to a structure).

The next step is to gently shape the tree through judicious and selective pruning each year. Ideally, when you brought it home from the nursery it consisted of three to five evenly spaced trunks. You can keep it in that form by cutting out any sprouts that come up at the base. It’s also nice to keep the trunks clear of side-branches to a height of three to six feet, depending on the ultimate full-grown size. Aside from that, there’s no harm in a few thinning cuts in the canopy, and some light heading back cuts to the branch tips (if you can reach them). Ideally this cutting should be accomplished by mid-March, but end of March is a safe bet.

Let’s all do our part to fight crime. Support your local law enforcement officers, join a Community Watch, become a mentor to a young person, and by all means stop being a crepe murderer!

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