Crape myrtles are excellent landscape plants, need proper pruning

One of the most beautiful ornamental plants in the landscape is the crape myrtle. During summer months these plants bloom profusely while needing minimum maintenance.

They are long-lived, can tolerate dry conditions after becoming established, and are relatively free of disease and insect difficulties. Crape myrtles have a large range of colors from red and pink to lavender and white. The plants can range from less than three feet to more than 20 feet, depending on cultivar, and is plant of great versatility.

It performs well in confined spaces, and is well-suited for small areas. Crape myrtles develop several main stems, with multi-trunk crape myrtles being preferable to single stem plants.

The winter months are the best time to prune crape myrtles. The practice of chopping off the tops of crape myrtles, often called "crape murder," the horrific pruning that many unfortunate crapes must endure, isn't far off the mark. Light pruning is usually all that is needed.

Pruning crapes so they retain the appropriate form is relatively simple. Prune the trees in the winter when dormant since the flowers bloom on the new growth. It increases the new shoots that form flowers, and reduces the amount of vegetative growth. This funnels the energy of the plant into new growth and flowers.

Pruning, however, is not essential for flowering. Some of the most spectacular floral displays can be seen on old, unpruned crape myrtles along roadsides. Flower clusters are usually smaller on unpruned crape myrtles, but the number of flower clusters is greater. Therefore, the overall floral impact of the plant is not reduced.

For trees that are just the right height or shorter, simply prune off the old flower heads and seedpods. If the tree was perfect last year but the past summer's growth made the plant too tall, remove just that growth. Always remove any suckers that have sprouted from the roots or lower trunk. The key is to not allow the trees to get so overgrown that extreme pruning is ever necessary.

Sometimes we may forget to do our yearly maintenance pruning, or it may be we take over a property where the previous maintenance person did a lousy job and now a harsh pruning is necessary. In either case, the trees can be pruned in such a way as to minimize the aesthetic impact of the removal of sizable portions of the tree.

Begin by identifying the main stems and remove any others that might have suckered from the roots. Next, prune out any branches that rub and any branches in the interior of the tree that have suckered. Then decide the height you wish the tree to become. Make cuts at the very top of each trunk to remove any growth above that height. The tree may look a little flat-topped, but you can make shaping cuts to make the canopy the shape you want. I prefer the very top to be a little flat and to taper the sides into a rounded shape. One might describe it as umbrella shaped.

A good opportunity to obtain some crape myrtles is available now, offered by your Gwinnett County Extension Service. Crape myrtles are for sale at a cost of $5 for one gallon sizes. The cultivars include: Natchez, Arapaho and Pink Velour. Also available at the sale are blueberries, blackberries, muscadines, azaleas, viburnums, and coral bells.

Order forms may be obtained at your Extension office, located on the fourth floor of the Gwinnett County Government Annex, or by calling the Gwinnett County Extension Service at 678-377-4010. You can also go to the Gwinnett County Extension Web site: www.gwinnettextension.org.

Information on the sale and a brochure can be downloaded from the Web page.

Timothy Daly is an agricultural and natural resource agent with the Gwinnett County Extension Service. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or by e-mail at timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.