Q: Every winter my neighbor cranks up his chainsaw and saws his crepe myrtles back to the same spot. But other folks leave theirs untouched and those don’t seem to have those gnarly knots on the branches. Which method is correct?

A: Oh, talk about hitting a nerve with an Extension Agent. The thing that really gripes us each winter is seeing crepe myrtles that are pruned wrong — butchered back and abused. Many tall, beautiful crepe myrtles are being reduced to nothing but ugly stubs.

This improper pruning technique, once described by Southern Living magazine as “Crepe Murder,” involves severely pruning back crepe myrtles from tree form to shrub form. It seems to me that people are committing this atrocious horticultural crime for one of three reasons:

1) They, like you, see their neighbors do it and think they must also;

2) They’ve chosen a crepe myrtle that’s too tall for its location; or

3) They should have selected a shrub form of crepe myrtle, which is available.

Here are the facts on how to correctly prune crepe myrtles:
Crepe myrtles tend to grow numerous suckers from the base, and therefore do require some pruning every year — but only minimal pruning. Early training will help eliminate any extensive pruning later on.

(Photo/ Bethany O’Rear) This improper pruning technique, once described by Southern Living magazine as “crepe murder,” involves severely pruning back crepe myrtles from tree form to shrub form.

Extensive pruning or cutting back of crepe myrtles each year only causes them to vigorously grow back what was removed — hence the unsightly knots on their long, graceful limbs. The only pruning that should be done each year is to remove suckers and to maintain its attractive shape by removing deadwood, branches that cross or rub against other branches, and seedpods. And heavy pruning in the winter will not help or force crepe myrtles to bloom more; all the blooms will simply be in one place on the tree.

The only way to stimulate more summer flowering and promote a smaller second flush of blooms is to tip-prune — also known as deadheading — the old blossoms at the ends of the branches as they fade in late summer.

A crepe myrtle that is not blooming well might be getting too much shade and should be moved to another area to get more direct sunlight. Moving it into more sunlight will also help control powdery mildew.

If you think a crepe myrtle needs to be pruned, do it only during middle to late winter once the leaves have fallen and the tree is completely dormant (around Valentine’s Day — love hurts, right?). One rule of thumb to pruning crepe myrtles: Don’t cut to see over it; cut to see through it. Remember that crepe myrtles are trees and are supposed to become tall (unless you’ve selected one of the shrub forms). Shaping the tree, removing the lower limbs and having only three to five main trunks will give the crepe myrtle a more attractive and formal appearance.

Renewal pruning or cutting a plant back to the ground is sometimes a good idea. If a crepe myrtle has been severely damaged, is unhealthy or has been pruned badly, renewal pruning will allow the plant to start all over. Renewal pruning will cause a crepe myrtle to grow back rapidly in about two to three years. Once the crepe myrtle has grown back, the plant can then be trained and properly pruned to look even better. Do all renewal pruning in late February to early March.

Crepe myrtle varieties come in all shapes, colors and sizes. Pruning large ones into small ones doesn’t make sense. If you want a small, manageable crepe myrtle that looks like a shrub, buy a smaller variety. Whacking off and scarring up large crepe myrtles is not the way to achieve that look.

You are invited to these free upcoming gardening events:

What: Mobile Master Gardeners Monthly Meeting
When: Thursday, Feb. 2, 10-11:30 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: The Chelsea Flower Show, presented by Brenda Bolton

What: Pruning Demonstration for Various Fruits, Roses and Ornamentals
When: Thursday, Feb. 16, 9-11 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Bring your pruning shears. Call 251-574-8445 for more information.

What: Mobile Master Gardeners Lunch & Learn
When: Monday, Feb. 20, noon to 1 p.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Community Gardens, Dr. Pat Hall