Don’t be guilty of crepe murder!!

So we had a great weekend away and for the most part succeeded in our goal of not talking about house things. The only time we slipped up was on our date night when we decided to step into Pottery Barn for a little inspiration-gathering. But how could you not talk about your own house when you go into Pottery Barn? Talk is the key word there, not buy. 😉 Anyway, the conference was a nice escape and a great way to refocus our marriage, but it was back to the grind when we got home Sunday afternoon.

I pulled long white nasty-smelling flowers and wild onions out of our yard while Andrew chopped down some trees and mowed. I also finished pruning my second crepe myrtle. I really needed to finish this before they start budding, which should be any day now! The best time to prune a crepe myrtle is in late winter or early spring, just before a high growth season. These are crepe myrtles, in case you don’t know. They come in all kinds of colors.

There’s a lot of confusion about how to prune a crepe myrtle properly. My philosophy? I refuse to commit crepe murder! What is crepe murder, you ask? It’s where someone “tops” the crepe myrtle, aka cuts off the top. When put that way it sounds really stupid…which it is. Once topped they’ll never be the same. Properly pruned crepe myrtles should look like the picture above or this one when not in bloom (though not all species get so big):

Beautiful, right? And these poor things are murdered (or topped) crepe myrtle bushes: 

See the difference? These ones have obviously been topped year after year at the exact same spot. I’m not sure if people do this because it’s quicker than taking the time to prune it properly or because they just don’t know any better. Every year they get topped, those ugly knuckles at the top get bigger and bigger. New shoots will grow out of the top and bloom, but they’re so small and weak that sometimes they droop under their own weight. They may be pretty when in bloom, but they’re really unsightly in the winter unlike a properly pruned one. They’re not letting it live up to its full potential!

I don’t think mine will ever get incredibly big, but lucky for me they’ve never been topped. This is kind of surprising considering how many topped bushes I’ve seen in our area, but not as surprising when I look at the other things the previous owners did (or didn’t do) around our house and yard. They haven’t really been pruned at all, though, so it took a long time to get them in shape. It’ll take several more seasons for them to be where they need to be, but I’m happy with the progress. Here is a before of the bigger of my two crepe myrtles last summer.

Pretty, but it has all those deadheads at the top and you can’t see the branches at the bottom like the ones I showed above. Here it is after a good pruning.

There’s still plenty to prune, but it already felt like I cut so much off and I couldn’t bring myself to prune more. I want to see what shape it has this year and make any adjustments next season. I did a lot of research before touching the bushes cause I had no clue how to prune one. I just knew I wasn’t going to chop it off. It was kind of difficult to follow a lot of the tutorials, though, as they’re more about maintaining what’s already been done, not pruning a well established but never been pruned bush. This article by the grumpy gardener was pretty helpful, and I was also inspired by his amazing crepe myrtle.

When pruning a crepe myrtle, you want to choose a few large branches to keep at the bottom (most people say 5 to 7). I wasn’t sure how to do this on mine as they all come out of the ground pretty far away from each other, not in a clump like a lot of the pictures. I probably still have too many…You should prune off any that are leaning too much to the middle or rubbing against another branch. Then cut off all suckers and smaller branches from the bottom third (ish) of the bush. Whenever you cut off a large branch (if it’s rubbing or going the wrong direction) you want to cut all the way down to a larger branch and not leave stubs.

This diagram was very helpful for me, though I didn’t cut off nearly as much…

Source: VerdeGo

I wanted the growth to get thicker as I went towards the top, so I left a little more at the top then the diagram. In order to stimulate new growth, trace back from each deadhead and cut the stem about 4 to 6 inches above where it meets a lower connecting branch. Two new branches will grow beneath every cut. I tried to prune it so that I only had 2 or 3 smaller branches out of each larger one.

Ultimately, prune your crepe myrtle in the shape that you want. Mine are on either end of my house, and I want them to be a little more like bushes than like trees, so I chose to leave mine a little more dense. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that topping your plants makes them grow faster and bloom more. It may for a season, but it ultimately is very unsightly, does not foster healthy growth, and could lead to irreparable breakage or rot.

Here in Northwest Arkansas people do a lot of “tree topping” as well. These trees are in our neighborhood (they’re not actually close to the power lines.)

They look like a tornado hit them, but someone actually did that on purpose! This is what topped trees grow to look like…it’s not good for the trees as the branches are so weak, and can lead to rotting or death of a tree.

Bet you can guess my opinion on this practice, but that’s another topic for another rant post.

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