Crape Myrtle Rehab

There’s not much way to re-prune a crape myrtle’s whacked branches to salvage the plant. Once it has knobs and gnarls, it’s always going to look misshapen.

You saw this photo in last week’s e-gardens story. I promised I’d have details of how it could be salvaged, and I’m here to fulfill that promise.

I made some comment about topped crape myrtles to Mark Byers, a second-generation crape myrtle grower from Alabama 15 years ago. He had the most genius comeback. It all stemmed to the rapid growth of crape myrtles that have been run over or frozen. Here’s what he told me.

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“Cut it completely back to the ground, then train the regrowth.”

Simple as that. So, that’s what I put in the pages of our website for The Crape Myrtle Trails of McKinney. I’m just going to copy-and-paste what it says. I can do that, because I wrote it in the first place.

Beverly Cain of Lubbock practiced what I preached, then sent me photos to document her success. On the left you see the old trunk. On the right you can see that the tree has regrown itself beautifully in just three years. Click image for larger view.

It is almost impossible to reshape and retrain a topped crape myrtle in a way that will conceal the scars of prior toppings.

The quickest way to get a handsome plant back is to cut it completely to the ground and then retrain the new shoots that are produced. You can have a beautiful crape myrtle within just a couple of years.

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Allow the plant to develop with 8-10 trunks for the first 12-18 months.

When the plant is 5-6 ft. tall, select the strongest, straightest 6-7 trunks. Remove the others clear to the ground.

Beverly Cain’s entire tree and its trunks so you can see how nicely it turned out. You can do this with your old crape myrtles, too.

Once those trunks have become sturdy and able to stand on their own, usually by the end of their second growing season, remove all but the ones you want to be your permanent trunks. Always prune to an odd number, probably 3 or 5 trunks.

As the plant grows taller, remove the side branches. However, do so gradually, never coming up more than 40 percent of the total height of the plant. Leave the side branches that emerge at 45-48 inches. You can always remove them later – you don’t want to prune the plant too far up its trunks.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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