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How to prune crape myrtles to look their best

Crape myrtles are some of the most commonly planted flowering trees in the landscape. They provide abundant summer color with minimal maintenance.

The winter months are the best time of the year for pruning crape myrtles. However, the practice of butchering them has become very commonplace. Light pruning is usually all the plant requires. Some varieties of crape myrtles have the potential to grow to tree-size proportions, and they should be planted where they can grow to their natural height without any heavy, intensive pruning.

Pruning crapes so that they retain the appropriate form is relatively simple. The plants need to be pruned in the winter during dormancy since the flowers bloom on the new growth the following summer. Pruning increases the new shoots that form flowers, but is not essential for flowering.

Some of the most beautiful floral displays can be observed on old crape myrtles planted along roadsides that have never had any pruning. Flower clusters are usually smaller on crape myrtles that have not been pruned, 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 past year's summer 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 more intensive pruning may be required, especially if yearly maintenance pruning is forgotten or if you have taken ownership of property where the previous owners did not maintain the plants properly. In either case, the trees can be pruned in such a way as to minimize the aesthetic impact of removing sizable portions of the tree.

Begin by identifying the main stems and then remove any other ones that might have suckered up from the roots. Prune out any branches that rub against each other, and then decide the height you wish the tree to become. Make select cuts at the very top of each trunk to remove any growth above that height. The preferred way of shaping is for the tops to be a little flat and the sides tapering into a rounded shape.

Remember, the 2010 Annual Gwinnett County Extension Plant Sale is offering excellent plants, including several fruit bearing plants, deciduous native azaleas, a couple of varieties of camellias and several other plants, at great prices. To obtain a brochure and an order form, go to www.gwinnettextension.org, or call the Extension office and one can be mailed to you.

Timothy Daly, MS, Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent, Gwinnett County Extension. Tim may be contacted by phone at 678-377-4010 or by e-mail at timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.