And so it begins. Years ago, this was hog-butchering time. Now it's become crape myrtle butchering time.
The only pruning crape myrtles ever need 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 rubbing branches. That's it. As with all other ornamental (and shade) trees in our landscapes, they should never be topped. And here's why.
1. Pruning crape myrtles late in the year decreases cold hardiness, and as we all know, we periodically go from a balmy wind to a polar vortex. I'll always remember in the 1980s when many crape myrtle trees froze to the ground.
2. Topping crape myrtles causes them to sucker more at the base, leading to more pruning and more work to remove the unwanted sprouts. The ultimate goal with crape myrtles is to have a permanent number of trunks with no suckers and no more pruning. Bumping them with lawn mowers and string trimmers causes them to sucker as well.
3. Topping (butchering) crape myrtles costs money. Folks don't cut and haul crape myrtles for free, and the gas and oil used for the power equipment isn't cheap or environmentally friendly. Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of things you can pay to be done to your crape myrtles, including thinning, limbing up, sucker removal, bark scale treatment, etc. If you have money you need to spend, you have my permission.
4. Hacking and hauling crape myrtles is lots of work. I myself have had shoulder surgery, two neck surgeries, back surgery and four hip surgeries. I'm certainly not looking for things to cut and pick up!
5. If your crape myrtle 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 every year. Some are bushes and some are trees.
6. Topping crape myrtles produces a plethora of new shoots, narrow crotch angles and crevices for the pesky crape myrtle bark scale to hide and overwinter in. Plus, hauling infested branches around has helped spread the insect, I'm sure.
7. Crape myrtles have some of the most beautiful trunks and branching structure of any ornamental tree that we grow, so I promise you a crape myrtle never pruned will always be prettier than one that is topped. We don't top dogwoods, Japanese maples, redbuds and Bradford pears.
8. Cutting crape myrtles back hard produces long, sappy growth that flops when they come into bloom. Yes, pruning them heavy makes larger flowers, but we aren't taking them to a flower show, so it doesn't matter if you have a hundred big flowers or a thousand small flowers.
9. Topping crape myrtles isn't recommended by any expert or gardening publication on Planet Earth, with all agreeing that it's bad for the tree and ugly.
10. Topping your crape myrtles is like hanging a sign in your yard saying, "I can't read." Otherwise you would no better!