Zen and the art of crape myrtle pruning

Zen and the art of crape myrtle pruning.

Of all the questions I am asked about landscaping and gardening, I think most frequently asked is about how to prune crape myrtles.  While thinking about the complex answer to this question, I have come up with the idea that we should talk about “shaping” the plant instead of “pruning” or “cutting back”.  Learning to grow a plant is one thing, shaping it is an art form.

A 40 ft. tall uncut crape makes nice shade but few blooms
A 40 ft. tall uncut crape makes nice shade but few blooms

I guess that the first part of the answer is that a crape myrtle will grow just fine without any pruning at all.  It may turn out to be a large bush or it may turn out to be a tall tree.  In the deep south, these plants are commonly grown as shade trees.  They will become rather large if left untouched—and if that’s what you want, leave it alone.  If you want a heavy blooming, well shaped accent tree for your yard, then the following information may be helpful.

You may wish to review the basics of pruning at another one of my articles which explains what happens to the plant when it is pruned. “The simple basics of pruning-pruning as an art form”.  Also keep in mind that crape myrtles bloom on new growth and that the bloom seems to be regulated by heat. This means that the more new growth shoots there are on the plant when it gets hot, the more flowers you will have.

The most commonly desired shape is that of several trunks (multitrunk) with no growth to a certain height and topped off with a canopy.  Let’s look at how this is accomplished.  Here is a group of plants that haven’t been worked on in a couple of years.

These crape myrtles need a bit of shaping to finish the 4 dimensional "picture"
These crape myrtles need a bit of shaping to finish the 4 dimensional “picture”

To begin, study the plant carefully. Look at the bottom of the tree and take out any undesired vertical trunks.  Common practice calls for the tree to have three or five trunks.  It also works, as shown here, to have quite a few main trunks, but of about the same size.

remove any unwanted vertical trunks
remove any unwanted vertical trunks

After taking out any undesired vertical trunks, look at the top of the tree.  Choose a desirable height and cut the tops of the plants so that 6 or 10 inches of wood is sticking up above a fork.

Pruning the tops also makes the trunks stronger.  Pruning above the "forks" offers more new growth and therefore more blooms.
Pruning the tops also makes the trunks stronger. Pruning above the “forks” offers more new growth and therefore more blooms.

This gives the plant much more opportunity to put out new shoots and new shoots are where the blooms come from.  The little balls that you see in the picture below are old seed pods which should all be trimmed also.

The tops are pruned correctly and the other seed pods should be removed.
The tops are pruned correctly and the other seed pods should be removed.

After taking out the undesired trunks and pruning the tops, look at the remaining trunks and remove all of the small side shoots.  This can be done by cutting or breaking them off.  Breaking them off seems to work best, but cutting will be necessary on the larger stems.  Try to cut as close to the tree trunk as possible.

Taking off the side growth makes the trunk stronger and maintains the "tree" image
Taking off the side growth makes the trunk stronger and maintains the “tree” image

In the large nurseries where the plants are produced for market, the side growth is removed several times a year by what is called “field stripping”.  This is done by wearing heavy gloves, gripping the trunk, and sliding the hand down over the trunks to break off any undesired growth.

"Feild stripping" should be performed to remove side growth periodically through the growing season.
“Feild stripping” should be performed to remove side growth periodically through the growing season.

If you have come anywhere close to following these instructions you will have a beautiful plant with lots of blooms for the spring and summer. Whenyou get through, your project should look like this:

All ready for the summer season.

Around the first of March, apply a general fertilizer with a high middle number (10-15-10 for example.  I plan to write an article on reading a bag of fertilizer shortly).

John P. Schulz has written a book that contains the adventures of johntheplantman it is offered as an ebook Here:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00FOAJCGO

Independent Publisher's book award, "Best fiction-South"-2009
Independent Publisher’s book award, “Best fiction-South”-2009

Or you can read all the hype and reviews on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Requiem-Redneck-John-P-Schulz/dp/0981825206/

Published by John P.Schulz

I lost my vocal cords a while back due to throat cancer. The laryngectomy sent me on a quest to find and learn to use my new, altered voice. I am able to talk now with a really small and neat new prosthesis. My writing reflects what I have learned in my search for a voice. My site johnschulzauthor.com publishes a daily motivational quote and a personal comment. I write an article a week for my blog, johntheplantman.com which deals with a lot of the things that I do in the garden. I am also the author of Requiem for a Redneck and the new Redemption for a Redneck--novels portraying the lives and doings of folks around the north Georgia hills. I have an English Education degree from the University of Georgia and very happily married to the lovely Dekie Hicks. You may enjoy my daily Quotes and Notes at http://johnschulzauthor.com/

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12 Comments

  1. excellent article on the crepe myrtle John..here in the deep south conditions are good and the crepe is a valuable landscape plant….every hamburger joint has a long row….it does make trees here and the rapid growth goes tall and straight and given a second season to fatten up the sprouts make a sturdy and beautiful hiking staff ..some keep the bark on and use decorative cuts as decorations ..some strip the bark to show the pinkish white wood and some carve “wood spirits” into the handle portion sections from the tree size myrtles reveal a tight curly grain prized for custom knife handles ,carving or turning..you can pay a lot of money for myrtle wood from hardwood dealers not realizing its our old friend the crepe myrtle….keep writing that good stuff john….

    1. Thanks, Bill. You have added another dimension to the use of the crape myrtle. Now I must go make me a knife handle.

  2. John, I go to church with your mom and found your site while visiting her facebook page. She is a delightfully special lady. Billy is an inspiration to all. I enjoyed your site and will introduce my husband to it. I could imagine myself in the gardens communing with my God and his creations. Thank you for sharing. I will be a regular.

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