And so, it begins: Crapemyrtle butchering season. The only pruning crapemyrtles ever need (if at all) is thinning the trunks as they are developing to the desired permanent number, removing suckers as they sprout at the base, and cutting out dead wood and crossing or rubbing branches. That’s it. As with all trees in our landscapes, they should never be topped or heavily pruned. Here’s why.
1. Pruning crapemyrtles late in the year decreases cold hardiness. Let’s not soon forget the freeze damage inflicted on many crapemyrtles in the past.
2. Topping crapemyrtles causes them to sucker more at the base leading to more work to remove the unwanted sprouts. The ultimate goal is to have a permanent number of trunks (odd numbers like 3, 5, or 7 look best) with no suckers and no more topping.
3. Hack jobs on crapemyrtles costs money. Crews don’t cut and haul crapemyrtle branches for free and the fuel used for the equipment isn’t cheap or environmentally friendly. I suspect crapemyrtle bark scale is spread tree to tree and neighborhood to the neighborhood by pruning equipment and trailers as well.
4. Cutting and hauling crapemyrtles is lots of work. I’ve had shoulder surgery, two neck surgeries, back surgery, and four hip surgeries. I’m certainly not looking for things to bend over and pick up!
5. If your crapemyrtle grows too big for the space you have it in, then you have the wrong cultivar and should remove it entirely instead of chopping on it annually. Some are bushes and some are trees. They range in ultimate heights from 3-30 feet. Plant varieties accordingly.
6. Topping crapemyrtles produces a plethora of new shoots and narrow crotch angles for pesky crapemyrtle bark scale to hide and overwinter in. Crapemyrtle bark scale also likes to feed on new growth and callus tissue induced by pruning.
7. Crapemyrtles have some of the most beautiful trunks and branching structure of any ornamental tree that we grow. A crapemyrtle never pruned will always be prettier than one that is maimed. The standard aesthetic rule of thumb is two-thirds upper branches and one-third lower trunks. Topping produces the opposite.
8. Cutting crapemyrtles back severely produces long sappy growth that flops and droops when they bloom. It also delays the bloom time.
9. Topping crapemyrtles isn’t recommended by any expert or gardening publication in the world, with all agreeing that it’s bad for the tree and unattractive.
10. If your crapemyrtle has been horribly scarred by “crape murder,” cut it to the ground in early spring and watch how fast it grows back. Wait one year then select the number of permanent trunks you want.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He is the author of Texas Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, Heirloom Gardening in the South, and The Rose Rustlers. You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com, read his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com), and follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens.” More science-based lawn and gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggieturf.tamu.edu and aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu.