Pruning crape myrtle? I was under the impression that pruning crape myrtle was a “don’t.” My local Cooperative Extension, however, sent out a little meme that said that January is a good month for pruning many bushes, including crape myrtle. I decided to investigate and came up with these pruning basics for the beautiful if often mis-pruned, crape myrtle.
All About Pruning Crape Myrtle
It’s a phrase used to describe what happens to poorly pruned crape myrtle trees. I’ve often heard it used to describe the row of crape myrtles in the bank parking lot in our town. Each year, someone hacks off the tops of the plants into a flat-top crewcut to make the tall graceful trees look like a shrubby hedge. You can spot it a mile away; thick treetrunk stems, spindly shoots on top, a plant deformed by poor judgment and ignorance.
Pruning crape myrtles used to be something I avoided, but this year, when the local Cooperative Extension Office sent over a little meme listing shrubs to prune in January and I saw crape myrtle listed, I decided to investigate. I always thought pruning crepe myrtles was a ‘don’t’ like never wear white shoes before Mother’s Day or after Labor Day. Or is that still a don’t? My mother would have said it was a don’t.
Judicious pruning of crape myrtle trees actually helps them bloom better. Unlike many other shrubs, crape myrtles bloom on new wood. This means that the flowers you see over the summer develop on new shoots. Pruning stimulates the growth response, which encourages the main trunks to push forth new stems and flowers.
My own patch of crape myrtles, planted about nine years ago, has become quite thick and overgrown. Terrified to commit crape murder, I’ve let the plants send us whatever shoots they chose to push skyward. I left the tangled mess of thin stalks, old branches, and multiple trunks to fend for themselves.
(I’m an Amazon affiliate and there are affiliate product links in this post. I make a little money if you click on the link and buy something, but it doesn’t affect your price).
Before learning how to prune these beautiful flowering plants, it’s important to gather the appropriate tools. Of course, you need pruning shears; but what kind?
I have always favored the Felco bypass pruners from my days working at a garden center. We were issued Felco #5 pruners as part of our working gear. However, since gardening seriously here in Virginia and owning my own home, I have to say that a less expensive alternative works just as well. I’m now a fan of the Fiskars Steel Bypass Pruning Shears. They have a nice, comfortable grip and make a smooth, sharp cut. Our pruning shears get quite the workout during the gardening season and I have not had to sharpen my Fiskars yet.
Another tool you will need is a large lopping pruner. These pruners have long handles and sharp blades and are good for cutting mid-sized branches. Again, I’ve switched from other brands to Fiskars (they aren’t paying me for an endorsement – honest – I just like them). The Fiskars bypass loppers are great for cutting mid-sized branches on shrubs. I use them to prune forsythia, lilac, butterfly bush and now crape myrtle.
Lastly, you may need a hand saw. A tree pruning saw offers an easy, portable saw to cut larger trunks on crape myrtle.
My secret weapon: A bottle of rubbing alcohol and a rag. Moisten the rag with rubbing alcohol and carefully wipe the blade of your pruners between plants. This sterilizes your tools and protects plants from any microorganisms you may accidentally transmit between cuts. Simple, right? An old coffee can with a lid or a plastic container with a lid can keep the rag moist between uses.
How to Prune Crape Myrtle
Here in Virginia, January is indeed a good time to prune crape myrtle. You can also prune in February. Just be sure to prune BEFORE the plant starts sending out new shoots. Once it begins growing again, let it be until next year – you may cut off the blooms by accident.
The goal of pruning crape myrtle is to open up the crown of the tree and allow light and air to circulate. Begin at the bottom and cut off any extra trunks and suckers. Then, reduce any crossing branches and interior branches. Remove thin, weak, or diseased branches. Pick up all the trimmings and branches and discard them in the trash.
Step back and pause. Go slowly. Always cut less than you think. You can always cut more off later but like a haircut on a person, you can’t make it grow back if you lop too much off!
Some people like a nice smooth trunk for a tree shape on crape myrtle. To create a trunk-like effect, cut off the lower branches.
A great visual guide to help you prune crape myrtles may be found on Fine Gardening.
Did you successfully prune your crape myrtle this year? I plan to head out into the garden by late January for my pruning expedition. I’d love to hear how you do with your crape myrtle.
Just remember please…say no to ‘crape murder’ and prune with care.
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.