Pruning crape myrtles without murdering them

Winter time is here and it is time to think about pruning our ornamentals, roses and fruit trees. Crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) are a wonderful ornamental tree commonly planted in our area. It has bark that is attractive; blooms from about July until fall in colors of white, pink, purple, crimson and comes in a range of sizes from 4 to 30 ft. tall. Plant breeders have been busy with this species. They are drought tolerant as well as beautiful and also have colorful fall foliage in reds, yellows and orange.

I have written before about folks committing crape murder. I can testify that I still see it being committed so I am addressing this issue again. Crape myrtles can be left unpruned and have a nice natural shape. However, since blooms occur on new growth they are often pruned to stimulate new growth for blooms. The problem is how to foster new growth without disfiguring and diminishing the health of the tree.

Often pollarding is the approach used to commit this crime. Pollarding is defined as a tree cut back nearly to the trunk, so as to produce a dense mass of weak, new-growth branches. It is like kneecapping the tree. Perhaps Wikipedia says it best about pollarding crape myrtles “This is not a practice to use if one wants an attractive, healthy natural tree as the natural growth is stunted. Many times this is done in southern states of the USA to crape myrtles, and is called ‘crape murder’ by some.”  

I prefer to train crape myrtles like a fruit tree with an open center. This openness allows sunlight and air into the center, reducing diseases such as powdery mildew and promotes new growth for blooms. A heading cut on a young tree at about 3 to 4 feet will create branches to be trained to an open vase. After selecting a single trunk, it is a matter of making choices of which of the new shoots will be selected to create the vase shape of the tree. Select no more than 3-5 main scaffold branches. I usually head prune these at 2-3 feet the following year to produce secondary scaffolds. At some point when the tree is shaped and the secondary scaffold branches are at a sufficient height, I truncate these branches to a two bud spur.

The choice is often for spurs which will keep the tree opening up. Pay attention always to which way the buds are facing on your two-bud spur selection as well as scaffold selections. Buds are usually located opposite each other in alternating sets, i.e., the next set is 90 degrees from first, so in some cases leaving 4 buds will provide the best directions for the shoots because these top buds will usually dominate. Last year’s two-bud spur may produce two or three shoots, so you will need to reduce this to one shoot from which to select the next two-bud spur.

You can keep the tree at whatever height you want. By selecting two bud spurs on each branch each year, you will only add about a foot to the tree in 6-8 years. If you want to shorten the tree you can cut back into old wood and the tree will push some vestigial buds and continue to bloom. Thus this method allows you to keep the tree at a reasonable height and looking attractive.  Keeping the tree short so you don’t need a ladder is safest, but a ladder can be used too.  

There is a tendency for the crape myrtle to have multiple trunks, but as I stated above I prefer to select one main trunk and work with it. However, you can create an open vase tree with multiple trunks from the ground, especially if you start to work with a tree established in this manner: see  Select no more than 3 to 5 well-spaced trunks and prune out the rest. Crape myrtles often send up suckers near the base which should also be removed.

At my new home, I have two crape myrtles that were established with multiple trunks. I would estimate that they are perhaps 12-15 years old and had not been pruned, so I was challenged to shape them to my fancy. There were crossing limbs, too many limbs and a densely crowded top of branches. After pruning they had an open vase shape with a thinned top. I also prune weak side growth to strengthen it and induce more vigor. This will help provide blooms in places other than just at the treetop. More evenly distributed blooms are more appealing. Cheers to better pruning and enjoyment of crape myrtles.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website:

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