Question of the Week – Number 3: June 25, 2020

Young magnolia and crape myrtle trees are in need of pruning and shaping.

“When can I start removing lower branches to transform my “shrub” into a tree?”

Both of these questions got posted to my Facebook page within the past week. But I’m asked similar questions many times each year.

This handsome young magnolia tree is ready to be trained into tree form. Photo by John B.

People have different preferences when it comes to magnolias’ growth forms in the landscape. Dwarf types, however, generally are trained as small trees with lower branches removed.

I’m not the best at marking up photos, but I think you’ll get my ideas.

If this were my tree, I would be ready to remove the lower limbs up to the point where I’ve drawn the yellow line. I can’t really tell exactly where I would stop trimming. My policy is always to start at the bottom and to step back after each cut and see if the next one will have positive visual results.

I try never to go above 40 percent of the way up the trunk. In this case, my ending point would be very close to that line.

As the tree continues to grow taller, additional lower branches could be removed, but I would probably stop when the lowest branch was at 42 to 48 inches from the ground. As a wise old college prof once told us, “You can always remove it later. You can never put it back.”

Continued Below

Here is the crape myrtle, and I’ll explain how I’d prune it. Photo by Keith M.

Crape myrtles…
All crape myrtles are genetically shrubs. We are the ones who convert them into small trees.

I have a harder time marking this photo as to precisely where I would be making my cuts, but I’ll give it a general try.

Work with me on this one. The lines indicate roughly where I’d be making my cuts.

You can see my two horizontal lines. All leafy side shoots below those lines would come off.

The elongated vertical line on the left: that branch heading off to the left almost parallel to the ground would be trimmed flush with its trunk.

Just above that, the short vertical line on the left – that branch extending out into the sun would be cut off flush with its trunk.

On the right, the two branches going off at 45-degree angles would be cut near the yellow vertical lines. Those cuts would be flush against the trunk(s).

That should leave you with 3-5 clean trunks up to roughly those two horizontal yellow lines. Eventually you’ll want just three main trunks. That will probably thin out the interior. You may want to wait until this winter to do that pruning, when you can see through the plant better.

From then on, remove any additional basal sprouts near the ground and keep the trunks clean. Remove rubbing or overlapping branches in the top canopy.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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