Crape Myrtles

Crape myrtles are a popular landscape choice because this tree is as tough as it is beautiful. Many people find the crape myrtles beautiful because of their peeling bark, fall color, the grace of their natural form, and their long summer blooming period.
Crape myrtles are a low-maintenance plant. Cultivars are available in dwarf and semi-dwarf shrub sizes and as small, medium, and large tree selections The large variety of colors and sizes provides many options to select the right size plant for a certain space.
Topping crape myrtles is the practice of chopping off the tops is unfortunately a very common practice in pruning. Topping these beautiful trees can be appropriately named “Crape Murder” due to the murderous affect to the plant’s appearance resulting from severe and excessive pruning. Many people believe topping is required to promote flowering, some prune because the plant is too large for the space provided, while others see their neighbors doing it and feel they need to do it as well. There are very few instances when heavy pruning is necessary. Typically, only light if any pruning is needed.
Crape myrtles prefer the hot, sunny climate of South Carolina. It is important to remember tree types need sites where they have a large area to spread. Tree types should be allowed to develop their natural style without whacking off their tops. To develop a tree shape, remove all but 3-5 of the strongest trucks at ground level. As the tree trunks mature, remove lower, lateral branches (knows as limbing-up) to one-third or halfway up the height of the plant. Also remove any branches that are crossing or rubbing against each other. Make cuts to a side branch or close to the trunk. As the tree grows taller, remove lower branches as needed. Removing the seeds heads is optional. If you find it necessary, remove seed heads during late winter or early spring before growth begins. Nature will take its course and the seeds heads will drop on their own.
Crape myrtle flowers on new growth. A crape myrtle will produce larger flowers and bloom more profusely if lightly pruned, however crape myrtles will produce plenty of flowers without any pruning.
When a large, mature crape myrtle has overgrown its space, consider all options prior to top pruning. Limb up lower limbs to create clearance under the canopy. If a tree is too close to a building, remove one of the major trunks to create space. To keep a crape myrtle at manageable height, prune moderately by removing all twiggy growth back to lower growing side branches. This will give the plant a more uniform appearance.
When a large crape myrtle is in a spot where a low, compact plant is desired there are two options. One, dig up the plant and replace it with a dwarf or smaller cultivar that requires little to no maintenance. The second option is to prune the stems back to about 6 inches above the ground each year.
Corrective pruning should be done to remove damaged or dead branches as soon as a problem is detected. For other pruning needs, prune when the plant is dormant (winter or early spring) to remove lateral branches, small twigs, or branches in the center of the plant to open more space for sun and air movement.
For more information on crape myrtle pruning and varieties, please visit the Home and Garden Information Center website at hgic.clemson.edu. Tune in on Tuesday nights to watch “Making it Grow” at 7 p.m. on SCETV or mig.org. Email Outen at callenb@clemson.edu.
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