I’m going to touch on a topic that can be as taboo in polite conversation as politics or religion: crepe myrtle pruning. During my 17 years of being an arborist in Richmond, I’ve met many people who fully believe that they alone know how to prune a crepe myrtle and that everybody else butchers these poor plants. Of course, most of these people disagree with each other on exactly how to do it and what constitutes responsible pruning.
Some will say “If you don’t cut back your crepe myrtles every year, they will get out of control”. I hear this and I imagine the alien plant in Little Shop of Horrors that grows to a monstrous size and gets a taste for blood.
Others declare that cutting your crepe myrtles back is “Crepe Murder” which gives me images of a crime scene drama complete with chalk outlines and a coffee-sipping forensic team in trench coats.
So, what should I do with my crepe myrtle? Do I need to prune it every year? How should my crepe myrtle be pruned? If I don’t prune my crepe myrtle correctly, will I be chastised by my neighbors like I have crabgrass and dandelions?
First off: If I don’t know what to do with my crepe myrtle, doing nothing may be the best option. If my crepe myrtle isn’t blocking a sidewalk or rubbing against my house it is probably a good idea to leave it alone until I know what to do with it. It will not grow out of control. I don’t need to cut my crepe myrtle back because everybody else is doing it.
Is cutting my crepe myrtle back “crepe murder?” No. Most woody plants do not do well with “topping” cuts, but crepe myrtles tend to tolerate this kind of pruning more than most. I fall into the camp that does not like this practice, but it isn’t murder. Cutting back a crepe myrtle isn’t necessary. It won’t increase the blooms. It does not help the plant. But it will keep the plant smaller which is important in certain landscapes. Topping a crepe myrtle does lead to a lot of re-sprouting, which tends to give it an odd look, especially in the winter. Crepe myrtles can have a wonderful form, that compliments their bark textures, giving them a great winter interest. If I top my crepe myrtle it will have an odd look in the winter, but it isn’t “murdered”.
Is there something else I could do with my crepe myrtle? If it has space, let it grow tall. If I raise the crown and thin out some of the smaller stems, it can show off the great form and texture of a crepe myrtle. Some trees and shrubs do not handle heavy thinning very well. Once again, crepe myrtles are more resilient than other trees and can tend to take a harder pruning. It is hard to over thin them.
So, what should I do with my crepe myrtle? I should know that I have options, one of which is to do nothing. I should also remind myself what my mother told me: I shouldn’t do something just because everybody else is doing it.