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How not to prune a crape myrtle tree. (picture 1)

A crime wave has hit the horticulture world! This dubious behavior usually occurs during mid to late winter and this year is of epic proportions. If you haven’t witnessed this crime being perpetrated, consider yourself lucky. Many have already fallen victim to this heinous act, and all you have to do is take a drive through town, or out in the countryside and you will see the evidence that remains of this despicable act. In the horticulture world, this act is known as crape murder (picture 1); a dreadful, undesirable way of pruning Crape myrtle trees that leaves the tree misshapen, topless, and exposed for disease and insect attack.

Crape myrtles are commonly referred to as the “lilac of the South” due to their long red, pink, white, or purple flowering panicles, and their colorful, exfoliating bark that ranges from light grey to burnt orange. Crape myrtles don’t require a lot of pruning but there are several things that can be done to help form its natural intended shape (picture 2).

Natural shape of a crape myrtle tree. (picture 2)

In the first year after planting, you want to select three to five main trunks and then cut out any extras. Every year corrective pruning should be completed. Corrective pruning would include removal of root suckers, water sprouts, and crossing branches. Yearly pruning would also include the removal of any dead or diseased branches.

Thinning of the canopy may not be necessary, but you can thin the canopy to allow more sunlight penetration by cutting back a few selected branches where they join larger diameter branches. When pruning, you want to consider the tree’s natural growth habit. Crape myrtles have a vase shaped canopy with the top branches fanning out from the multi-stemmed trunk. Any wild shoots or branches that do not fit within this growth habit can be removed.

Pruning Crape myrtles seems easy enough, so how did the practice of crape murder get started, and why does it continue? After years of investigation – completed by horticulture agents across the state, it seems that the problem is self-perpetuating. Homeowners and gardeners see this pruning practice happen, and they follow suit, assuming it is the proper way to prune; sadly, it is not. However, if your Crape myrtle has fallen victim to crape murder, there is a way to help bring it back to its natural beauty, but it will take several years of rehabilitation.

Begin by cutting out any knobby growth that has formed on the trunk of the tree at the pruning point leaving a clean trunk. Stagger the heights of the cuts to give the tree a more natural appearance. In the spring, many new sprouts will vigorously begin to grow from these cuts. Select two outward growing sprouts, and prune off the rest. Prune annually as indicated as above and within a few years the new sprouts will be of similar size as the original trunk.

Remember, nature knows how best to grow a tree – it’s our job to plant it in the correct location and help guide it to its full beauty, not to change it to fit our liking.

A growing program this year is the “Sampson County Friends of Horticulture.” This program offers monthly “How To” horticultural seminars targeting homeowners and gardeners of Sampson County. Our 2017 calendar is as follows:

Feb. 16 – Fruit Tree Management for the Homeowner (At capacity – waiting list only)
March 23 – Best Management Practices for Turfgrass and Lawns
April 20 – Managing the Red Imported Fire Ant
May 18 –  Soils – How to Soil Sample and Understand a Soil Report
June 15 – The Buzz about Bees
July 20 – Growing and Maintaining Pecans
August 17 – Raised Bed Gardening
September 21 – Calibrating a Hand Sprayer and Spreader
October 26 – Ridding your yard of Moles and Voles

Classes begin at 6 p.m. at the Sampson County Extension Center Livestock Facility, 93 Agriculture Place, Clinton NC 28328. Registration is $5 per class. You select and pay only for the classes you choose to attend. To sign up for classes you can call the Sampson Extension office at (910) 592-7161, or register online at Online registration will open one month before the class is scheduled to begin.