‘Crape Murder’ Means We All Suffer Unsightly Landscapes

— Written By Diane Lynch

Article written by Jessica Strickland, Extension Agent-Horticulture

Q: What is the correct way to prune crape myrtles?

A: Yes, there is a great campaign in the gardening world to end crape murder. It does not take long to search on the internet and find many articles, videos and websites stating how “crape murder” must end. Crape murder refers to the improper way to prune the popular crape myrtles known for their bright flower display in the summer and attractive bark during the winter. With crape myrtles being a popular plant in the landscape, many people ask when and how to prune them.

Crape myrtles should be pruned in later winter, typically from mid- to late February. A crape myrtle’s flower buds are produced on new growth. So once new growth starts in the spring, flower buds for the summer will begin to form on current new growth.

When it comes to how to prune crape myrtles, many are not pruned properly. Often you see the tops of crape myrtles cut off so there are just a few large stubs left. This type of pruning is not recommended because it destroys the natural form and shape of the plant. Some do this type of pruning with the idea that it promotes flowering, however, branches growing from these drastic cuts are weak and poorly attached to the main branches. Not only will these weak branches be easily damaged in wind and ice, but they will not be strong enough to hold up flowers during the summer causing the weak branches to sag from the weight of the flowers.

Crape myrtles are actually low-maintenance when it comes to pruning. Usually crape myrtles only need light pruning each year once the shape of the plant is established. When pruning, remember that new growth will emerge 3 to 4 inches below where the limb is cut. Avoid cutting back large limbs and leaving stubs because an abundance of new growth will emerge near the cut, looking like pom-poms on stalks and is not the natural habit of a crape myrtle.

When you first begin to prune a crape myrtle, you want to select three to five of the strongest and healthiest trunks and cut the other trunks out at ground level. Remove water sprouts coming up from the ground any time of the year. As the tree grows, you can remove lower branches from the main trunks to raise the canopy of the tree.

As when pruning any plant, you start with pruning the three D’s: dead, dying and diseased branches. Next, eliminate any crossing or rubbing branches. Crossing branches will allow for the branches to rub and open wounds and allow access for disease and insects into the tree. Remove branches growing toward the center of the tree canopy or growing downward. You want the branches to grow upward and outward from the tree’s center.

At this point in the pruning process, it is usually a good practice to step back and look at the tree to determine what branches need pruning next, if any. You will want to look at areas that need to be thinned out and cut selected branches back to where it meets another branch. This thinning will help allow for good air circulation throughout the tree canopy, which can reduce the chances of powdery mildew in the summer.

Even though “crape murder” is seen all too often in landscapes, remember to avoid topping crape myrtles and leaving large stubs. This type of pruning will not provide you with an attractive crape myrtle in the landscape. By simply practicing some routine pruning in late winter to clean up and encourage the natural form crape myrtles are known for, you will have attractive crape myrtles in your landscape for years to come.

Learn More!
• Visit our website at https://wayne.ces.ncsu.edu/. Click on “Lawn & Garden” on left side of webpage.
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Jessica Strickland
Extension Agent
North Carolina Cooperative Extension
Wayne County Center
P. O. Box 68
Goldsboro, NC 27533
E-Mail: jessica.strickland@waynegov.com
Phone: 919-731-1520
Fax: 919-731-1511