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God's Warrior

Crepe Myrtle Pruning

Crepe Myrtle Pruning

The following column, which appeared recently in The Herald-Sun (Durham, NC), was written by horticulture agent Paul McKenzie for his fellow gardeners. Although crepe myrtle isn't a universal plant, his advice is:
by Paul McKenzie

Although it's never been proven that plants can think, I sometimes wonder if they are smarter than people. Pruning season brings this thought to mind like no other time of year.
It's undeniable that people do dumb things to their plants. Yes, I'm guilty myself, and if you are of the mindset that pruning is all about fighting back overgrown shrubbery, then you may be guilty, too.

Here's an example. In my old neighborhood, there was a row of ligustrums growing beside a sidewalk. This is a very large, fast-growing shrub that easily reaches 25 feet at maturity. This row of shrubs was being pruned to a height of about three feet. Forget annual pruning--these were being hacked back six times a year.

The primary purpose of pruning is not size control. It is to improve the appearance and health of your shrubbery. It is a craft that requires good tools, a studious eye and an appreciation for the way plants grow.
Here's the rub; pruning does not stop plants from growing. It merely directs the growth. Before you make a cut, ponder where you want growth to occur. If you shorten a limb or branch, growth will occur at the first bud below the cut. The orientation of the bud will tell you the direction of the new growth.

That said, sooner or later we all face overgrown shrubbery. Maybe it was there when we moved in, or the plant label lied about the full grown size of the plant. Perhaps the landscaper was guilty of planting things too close together to achieve the instant landscape effect.

Oftentimes the best approach in this situation is to prune the shrubs back to the ground. Yes, it can be risky, especially if you don't check with your wife first. It might be risky for the plants, too. But if dead plants make you sad, then you're missing out on one of the great joys of gardening. Dead plants are opportunities for new plants.

The poster child for stupid pruning practices is the crepe myrtle. There is a common belief that crepe myrtles must be butchered each year. Many people cut them back by half or more on an annual basis. I could almost accept this if most of these innocent plants were growing in a confined space where size control was an issue. But we're talking about plants in wide open spaces with plenty of room to spread.
Maybe they think pruning this way increases flower production, which is doubtful at best. It could be argued that this is simply a matter of taste, since crepe myrtles have survived this brutality for years. Except that you're missing out on half of the ornamental characteristics of the tree, the long graceful trunks with smooth bark.

I was thinking about organizing a group of people to chain themselves to crepe myrtles to stop this horror, but then my wife reminded me that I still haven't cut back the overgrown shrubbery. I guess my weekend is full. Find a cause you really care about and you just don't have time to do anything about it. Maybe I could send a check. I hear someone's starting a farm for rescued crepe myrtles.
texaspampas

crape myrtle pruning

I fully agree with the horticulturist about pruning these plants! They look butchered and weak, although they do seem to flower more than ours. We have decided to "go natural."

Five years ago we planted a white crape myrtle in the front yard - it is now about 12 feet tall with average mature height being about 15 feet, or so says the label. We prune branches that are growing in the wrong direction back to the trunk/limb and as many of the small, dead tips where the flowers and berries were. Another crape myrtle - my favorite - is a powder pink dwarf, now about 3-1/2 feet tall which will eventually get to 6 feet. The shape is a beautiful, assymetrical Japanese bonsai (a Philippino woman who lives across the street has enthusiastically given us the thumbs up). It also is in the front, but closer to the house. I have a picture of that one, if I can figure out how to get it out of the camera Confused
God's Warrior

I wasn't aware of there being such a thing as a dwarf crepe myrtle. I think I might like to have one of those.

I have a confession to make at this point!!!! We do trim ours back and here's why. In our area, a crepe myrtle can be killed to the ground if the winters are particularly cold. By keeping ours as shrubs, it is much easier to handle them that way if and when we have a severe enough winter to kill them back. If they are allowed to grow into trees, then you just have to cut down the tree and dig up the stump. They would come back at the stump but wouldn't be pretty that way with the ugly stump always being "on show". With global warming being what it is or isn't, we haven't had a winter like that for a long time, but one never knows about the weather, does one? I have been tempted lately to just forget about our ever having such winters again, but can't quite talk myself into forming a new habit. Very Happy
texaspampas

crape myrtle pruning

Actually, most people here do the drastic pruning, probably to keep them at a smaller height. The dwarf has a different trunk and limb structure - stiffer, not as floppy on the ends. I recently read that crape myrtles are in the same family as lilacs?
God's Warrior

That is interesting. I know that the crepe myrtles can handle drought much better than their cousins however. If I don't keep water going to those lilacs they suffer badly and lose a lot of branches. I think they would probably die if I didn't help them out a bit.
texaspampas

crepe myrtle pruning

I wish we could grow lilacs here, but the climate is too hot. Sad
God's Warrior

I try to keep mine pruned so that they don't get too big and need massive amounts of water. I have a white one that does well even without much water. I don't have a clue why it is different from the lavendar ones.

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