Stop what you are doing and put down those pruning shears!
Now heed the advice of Alachua County arborist Lacy Holtzworth and make these decisions before you send your crape myrtles into fight or flight mode.
First, turn back the wheels of time.
If you are planting a tree, Holtzworth said, research the ultimate height and space it will need.
Back to the present, assess the established crape myrtle under consideration and establish whatever purpose you’re wanting to use the tree for and determine the pruning mission based on that.
“Maybe it’s too close to the house and you want to keep it a certain size or it’s under power lines,” Holtzworth said. “These may be the reasons why you might want to severely prune a crape myrtle.”
Now the expert advice.
“If you are an avid gardener and want the most dramatic display of flowers, then beheading and murdering may be for you, but it is an annual commitment,” Holtzworth said, adding that the process might kill the tree because it works against the natural structure.
Holtzworth ‘s three-step approach to pruning any tree goes like this:
Step one: Remove all dead wood.
“Dead wood is dead wood,” Holtzworth said.
Step two: Diseased wood. Get rid of it.
Step three: Damaged wood or any wood that is crossing or rubbing or growing into the tree or is broken all comes out.
“Remove branches for renewed growth or selective thinning for open airflow and good structure,” Holtzworth said. “Get rid of branches that are going to crowd the trunk or canopy.”
But Holtzworth wants people to know what happens to a tree when it is severely pruned.
“When you top a crape myrtle, you’re sending the tree into survival mode. It’s under attack and it’ll send out weak branches. It will send out flowers to reproduce,” as a response, she added. “The tree is in fight or flight.
“No certified arborist or horticulturist I have ever met has recommended the topping or murder,” Holtzworth said. “If a lawn service is serious about pruning trees, they should have a certified arborist on staff.”
Alachua County residents are noticing the chopping going on.
Peter Davis of Tioga commented, “Crape myrtles are taking a beating right now. Don’t let the lawn guy prune them.”
Karen Peeples from West End said she moved down from South Carolina where the agriculture extension “was adamantly against the cropping of crape myrtle trees, calling crape murder.”
Holtzworth said that the University of Florida IFAS Extension offers information on the tree and how to approach pruning them on its website.
She also recommends viewing this video by University of Arkansas horticulture expert Dr. Jim Robbins who explains selective pruning and thinning techniques.
Robbins and Holtzworth agree that now is the time to start pruning as most areas are past the worst part of winter and there are no leaves on the branches, which allows for more precision to see where to trim.
Holtzworth said she is hearing about disease striking crape myrtles north of Florida and said she is worried that if the crape myrtle trees are cut back severely and become stressed as they try to recoup, the plants won’t have the strength to survive any attacks.
“If we get a disease or pest and if trees are stressed out they will not be able to fight it,” she said.