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Crape Myrtle pruning should be re-evaluated

Crape Myrtles are fabulous plants for the Southern landscape. We value them for their summer blooms, exfoliating bark, fall color and the grace of their natural form. They are as tough as they are beautiful.

The practice of chopping off the tops has become commonplace. Many people believe that it is required to promote flowering; some prune because the plant is too large for the space; others see their neighbors doing it and feel the need to follow suit. There are times in which heavy pruning is necessary, but light pruning is usually all that is needed.

Crape Myrtle can be a low-maintenance plant. The best way to ensure this is to choose the cultivar that best suits your landscape needs. There are many new cultivars in different sizes and colors. The dwarf (3 to 6 feet) and semi-dwarf (7 to 15 feet) selections now available make it easy to choose the right size plant for your space.

Crape Myrtles that mature between 5 and 15 feet include ‘Acoma’ (white flowers), ‘Hopi’ (light pink), ‘Comanchee’ (dark pink), ‘Zuni’ (lavender) and ‘Tonto’ (Red). These are also resistant to powdery mildew, a fungus that attacks and distorts the foliage.

Compact crape myrtles between 3 and 6 feet include ‘Hope’ (white), ‘Ozark Spring’ (lavender) and ‘Victor’ (red). Unfortunately, the compact crape myrtles are not resistant to powdery mildew.

If careful consideration is given to the projected size of the mature plant, a selection can be found that will not outgrow its boundaries and can be allowed to display its graceful beauty with minimal pruning.

Crape Myrtle does not require heavy pruning to promote bloom. Flowers are produced on new growth. It will produce flowers without any pruning, although it will produce larger flowers and bloom more profusely if at least lightly pruned. Pruning in late winter or early spring will stimulate vigorous new growth. Encourage a second bloom in summer by pruning flowers immediately after they fade.

To develop a tree shape, remove all limbs growing from ground level except the three to five strongest limbs. As the tree matures, remove lower lateral branches (“limbing up”) one-third to halfway up the height of the plant. Remove branches that are crossing or rubbing against each other and shoots growing into the center of the canopy. Make your cuts to a side branch or close to the trunk. As it grows taller, remove lower branches as needed.

Consider all your options when confronted with a large, old crape myrtle in a space meant for a smaller plant. To create clearance under the canopy, limb up old trees that have spread their lower limbs where they interfere with people or cars. Limb up above the roofline of a single story home to clear obstruction of a window or door. Eliminate one of the major trunks if it is leaning too close to a building. Only as a last resort should you top a beautiful old specimen to squeeze it into a confined space.

To keep a crape myrtle at a manageable height, prune moderately by removing all twiggy growth back to lower growing side branches. This will give the plant a more uniform appearance. Practice corrective pruning to remove defective or dead branches. This should be done at the time the problem is detected. Otherwise, prune to remove lateral branches, small twigs or branches in the center to create more open space for sun and air movement.

Rebecca Bates is director of the Lincoln County Cooperative Extension Service. To contact her, call 601-835-3460.