In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
January, 2008
Regional Report

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Large crape myrtles benefit from light pruning to remove old seedpods.

Pruning Crape Myrtles

By this point in January many homeowners note that some of their neighbors have cut back their crape myrtles severely, while others have only snipped back the branches. Still others haven't pruned at all. Even more confusing, the crape myrtles seem to bloom about the same, regardless. How to decide what to do? It depends on the age and condition of the tree. And no, it's not too late if you opt to chop, snip, or clip.

Established Patterns
If you move in where crape myrtles have grown for years, they may be 30 feet tall with few blooms. Because they are old and obviously have not been pruned for ages, let them be or call in an arborist to thin the branches and tip them to stimulate new flowers. A true pro will shorten branches on such a grande dame specimen to the point where they are about the size of your thumb and no more. This "thumb" approach also works well for somewhat shorter trees whose branches look smooth all the way to their ends.

At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps your crape myrtles are around 12 feet tall and have swollen "knobs" at the top of each trunk. These knobs characteristically sport lots of small stems extending in all directions and indicate a severe pruning regime. These trees have likely been pruned each winter to control their height and produce lots of flowering stems. It's a good idea to continue the practice, or prepare to look the other way as you coax them to grow out of their established pattern.

Altering the way a knobbed crape myrtle grows can take two or three seasons, but even then some flowers will manage to bloom. Some gardeners cut off the trunks entirely right below the gnarly knobs, then select new branches from the numerous sprouts that emerge. Others leave the knobs and choose three from among the existing stems to encourage, then remove the rest. Keep nitrogen fertilizer to a minimum, and consider root feeding with phosphorous and potassium to build strong new branching and discourage water sprouts at the base or from the knobs.

Whatever approach you take, with patience, your crape myrtle will reward you.


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