Careful pruning enhances crape myrtles without harm
Regardless of what that darn groundhog predicts on Feb. 2, Mississippi gardeners are not going to enjoy an early spring because those prospects have already been dashed by the off and on cold weather.
Another garden disappointment is upon us, as February also marks crape murder season.
A couple of years ago, I decided to ignore this crime against horticulture because it seemed no one was listening to me or other horticulture experts around the Southeast. I told myself there were bigger fish to fry in our gardens and landscapes, so to speak.
Now, I’m really disappointed in myself and find I can’t ignore crape murder any longer.
Calling it “crape murder” doesn’t accurately describe what is happening. How can it be murder when the victim, the crape myrtle tree, doesn’t die? I believe a more descriptive and appropriate name should be “crape myrtlation.”
Crape myrtlation is the severe and senseless pruning of crape myrtle trees in the late winter.
This type of needless pruning results in flushes of weak shoots barely able to hold the summer flower clusters. The severe pruning can also delay flower development. The warm cinnamon, exfoliating bark and beautiful architecture of the branches never have the chance to develop when crape myrtles are mutilated with senseless pruning.
So, let me describe how to correctly prune a crape myrtle.
You need sharp pruning tools whose use depends on the diameter of the branches and limbs. Use bypass pruners to easily cut back branches up to 3/4 inch in diameter. For branches up to 1 3/4 inches in diameter, use a robust set of loppers. Use a pruning saw on any branches larger than that.
The best-looking crape myrtles are multitrunked and well-structured. Maintaining an odd number of trunks, such as three or five, looks great and preserves enough space for the tree to produce strong growth.
Pruning time is when we should remove any unwanted trunks. Cut them as close to the ground as you can. Then choose the height where you want the branching to start and remove lower branches back to the main trunk.
Remove any branches that are growing into the center of the tree canopy and any that are crossing or rubbing against each other. This creates space and opens the canopy, reducing the chance of diseases.
Finish with the removal of small, thin branches. I use my index finger as an approximate size guide to determine which ones to remove. It’s common for crape myrtles of any age or size to have suckers sprout up around the base. Simply use your hand pruners and cut these off without leaving a stub.
If you want to see me demonstrate these crape myrtle pruning techniques, see the Southern Gardening TV segment on YouTube “Pruning Crape Myrtles,” https://youtu.be/Ofe59YTVif0.
Use these pruning tips to keep your crape myrtle happy and healthy.