Crape myrtle trees (Lagerstroemia species) may benefit from winter pruning to improve their shape, encourage new growth, and increase the profusion of flowers in the coming season. But too often, gardeners create such unattractive trees that their pruning methods are dubbed “crape murder”! Proper pruning techniques allow the crape myrtle to grow to its natural shape—multi-trunked, open and vase-like—and to showcase its richly-colored bark in winter.
Do you need to prune?
Start by taking a hard look at your tree while it’s dormant in late winter (February through early March). Are there crossing branches or branches that grow inward toward the center of the tree? Removing these branches back to the point where they join a larger branch or main trunk will open the center of the tree and create an upward and outward branching structure.
How many main trunks does the tree have? Usually three, five, or seven trunks will be plenty to form a nicely shaped tree. Multiple trunks sitting too close together in the center of the tree or trunks drastically different in diameter may justify removal. If you do remove a main trunk, cut if off at ground level and plan to clip back the suckers that will sprout during the growing season.
For large branches and trunks, use sharp loppers and a pruning saw. Cut branches at a 45-degree angle above the branch collar rather than cutting flush with the trunk. If branches are thick and heavy, use the three-cut method to prevent bark from splintering—up from the bottom 4 to 6 inches from the collar, down from the top, and then remove the stub.
For removing small branches or seed pods, use hand pruners. Cutting off the seed pods is unnecessary, but if your tree isn’t too tall, and you can reach them, this makes the tree look neater in the winter and may encourage more summer flowers.
For more advice on pruning crape myrtle trees and good “before and after” photos, see Chatham County Extension Agent Charlotte Glen’s articles:
Article written by Beth Leonard, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.