Crape Myrtle Pruning Does Not = Topping
Proper Crape Myrtle Pruning is all too often not done. But “Crape Murder” is being committed on an almost daily basis. When asked why someone cut their Crape Myrtles back to a stub, many times they will say, “because that’s how everyone does it”, or “my friend told me that’s how to do it, and he’s been doing it that way for years, so it must be right”.
Well, NO, it’s not right. Very rarely is it “right” to top, hat rack, or cut back to a stub any Crape Myrtles. As a general rule, for the taller variety of Crape Myrtles, the proper way to prune is to thin out the canopy so you can see through the tree, not over it. If you have a Crape Myrtle that is getting too tall for the location it is planted in, it shouldn’t be topped, but rather it should be replaced.
There are hundreds of varieties of Crape Myrtle, and you can find the proper size plant, in a color that you like, for the location you need it. This might take a little research work or several stops at some Nurseries to gather information and see what varieties they have on hand and if they can get the right plant for the right spot for you.
Crape Myrtles can be found in varieties that range from a dwarf variety that will only be 3 or 4 feet tall at maturity, to a large variety that will reach 3o to even 50 feet tall, depending on where you live. This is one of the most common mistakes made by homeowners that are landscaping their own property, putting the wrong plant in the wrong spot. Then 5, 10 or 15 years later, they have to be pulled out to replace them with the correct plant.
The proper way to prune most varieties of Crape Myrtle is to NOT TOP, but rather to clean up the canopy from the base of the trunk, all the way up through the canopy. Cut out any branches that are rubbing on each other, diseased, or have broken branches. Down at the base of the plant, cut out any sucker growth or again, any branches that are rubbing or diseased or broken. We like to leave 3 to 5 of the largest trunks to be the foundation and main part of the tree to grow out. If it has any more than this, it turns into a bushy shrub-type plant rather than a tree-form plant.
Using a set of loppers and hand pruners you can properly prune any Crape Myrtle, and keep it looking good for years to come. Actually, there really isn’t that much maintenance to do on a Crape Myrtle that has been planted in the right location, considering the variety of plant.
The biggest piece of advice we can give someone about Crape Myrtle Pruning is to first, use the right plant in the right spot, and if this wasn’t done when it was planted, then strongly consider taking it out and replacing it with the proper variety. Other than that, follow the instructions above and thin the canopy, but do not top.
Starting with the right variety is the most important thing, the Crape Myrtles listed below have the size at maturity listed, this is just a starting place as there are hundreds of varieties.
Natchez Crape Myrtle
The Natchez Crape Myrtle is a White blooming, tall, tree-form Crape that will grow an average of 20′ tall. Average meaning that some will only reach 12′ and others will reach 25 to 30. It just depends on the location where planted, the amount of sunshine, what zone you live in, etc. I have seen these grow to 50′ tall in the Southern areas.
This is a variety that if planted beside a house, it needs at least 6 to 8 feet of space between it and the house, with nothing over it so it can grow to the height that it wants to. Cutting it back or topping it is not recommended. Again, plant the right plant in the right spot. If you don’t have room for this to grow, pick a different variety.
The Natchez also has a very interesting exfoliating bark that gives the landscape a little interest in the Winter.
This variety will not require much in the area of crape myrtle pruning, given its growth habit.
Sioux Crape Myrtle
The Sioux Crape is one of the favorites of many. It’s full pink blooms make a striking show through the Summer blooming period. The one shown is a multi trunk. These can be pruned up to be a single trunk or multi-trunk depending on the individual plant you select.
The growers will often start pruning them to be either a single or a multi-trunk as it is gaining height in the Nursery.
This variety of Crape Myrtle will grow 13′ to 20′ tall, again depending on the area where it is planted. We are in the Northern part of zone 7 and we rarely see this plant reach more than 10 to 12′. This plant is said to grow best in zones 7 – 9.
Reading up on any landscape plant will give you the USDA hardiness zones that are recommended for each plant. This doesn’t mean that it won’t grow North of the zones shown, only that it’s not recommended, and it wouldn’t grow to the heights in Kentucky that it would in Mississippi.
The same is true for landscaping foundation plants like Boxwood, Holly, Azalea, and any other plant you might want to use in your landscaping. The labels are suggestions and averages, that doesn’t mean that you can’t plant a Boxwood next to the house that says it will reach 10′ by 10′. With regular pruning, you can keep a Boxwood at whatever height and spread you want. This is different from having a tree that doesn’t need to be topped that would have to be pruned regularly to keep it in the spot.
The Acoma Crape Myrtle is a variety that will be in the medium range. 6′ to 10′ height, and again, depending on the hardiness zone you are planting it in. The farther South you are, the taller it will grow. Your “micro-climate” where you plant this in your own lawn will also affect the height and spread that it is able to reach.
The USDA Plant Label says that it likes full sun. So if you plant it in an area of your lawn that is shady, it’s not going to reach that labeled height. Use care and planning when planting any plant in your lawn so it can grow to its full potential without being whacked back constantly.
Dwarf Varieties are god for spaces that won’t allow the taller Crape Myrtle to be planted. Remember that your goal for a Crape should be to plant it, and prune it very little, and NEVER top it. These listed below will be the smallest available. Always refer to the USDA hardiness zone map and label information for the plant you are considering to be sure it will be suitable for the location where you want to plant it
The Pokomoke is one of the smallest Crape Myrtles growing only 2-4′ tall. It is more of a shrub type crape and not a tree-form like the Natchez or Sioux.
This is one that can be planted in large planter boxes, or used as landscape border plants, foundation plants or used to create a border along a driveway or fence. This variety has bright, beautiful pink blooms.
The Cordon Bleu is another of the smallest, the Cordon Bleu, growing to only 2′ tall with a lavendar color bloom.
These can be planted out in the lawn by themselves, as shown in the picture to the right, or planted in a line along a property border, along a driveway or fence. or even in the landscape beds by the house. They should be given 2-3′ for adequate growing space so they have room to grow.
This is another “shrub-type” crape that won’t require much pruning. Again, NEVER top crape myrtles. If this one gets too big for its spot, just shear it like a Holly or Boxwood. With a shrub-type, shearing is basically topping, but the idea is that you are cutting off the top growth all over the plant in this case, and not cutting the top out of the main trunk of the plant, creating a “hat rack”.
With any plant you are thinking of planting, refer to the label instructions to be sure you plant it where it will grow best, without having to be cut back, or pulled out later. You will save yourself lots of work in less pruning, and money in the long run not having to have the plants replaced.
What are some of your favorite varieties of Crape Myrtle?
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