Don’t be a Crape Murderer

By Kathy Conner Cornell VCE Southside Master Gardener I got an email from a friend in distress. A lawn and garden crew were taking a chainsaw to the crape myrtles in her complex. This is aptly called Crape Murder and is commonly thought to be the correct way to prune a crape myrtle. Unfortunately, is not the correct way and one only need to ride down US 501 in Halifax to witness how ugly the plants look when pruned in this manner. I do believe some that were murdered did not survive the slaughter. Crape myrtles, Lagerstroemia indica, are a beautiful southern woody plant that can take all the heat and humidity thrown at it. The colors range from white to pink to red to purple. No matter the size plant you want, crape myrtles can cover it. I had one, cultivar ‘Pocomoke’ that got only a foot tail. The plant height typically ranges from 4’ to those topping out over 30’. When considering which crape myrtle to purchase, know your desired mature size and find one that meets that criterion. Harsh pruning should not be required if you made the correct size selection.
This is how a crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, should look when properly pruned. Avoid hacking back crape myrtles but prune to maintain their lovely shape. While at MacCallum More, my supervisor was selecting some books to purchase for the gift shop. I recommended “Pruning Made Easy” by Lewis Hill from Storey Publishing. She said a bad review was given because the book did not describe how to prune crape myrtles. That is because crapes are pruned much the same way as any other shrub – remove crossing, rubbing branches, branches too close to the ground, suckers and water sprouts and cutting off wayward branches to maintain the natural shape. Only cut off 30% of the plant at a time. Pretty sure that lawn and garden crew broke every one of these tips. Many of you know Steve Bender, The Grumpy Gardener in Southern Living Magazine. I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar where he was one of the speakers. He is even more hilarious in person and talked quite a bit about crape murder in his presentation which happened to be Greensboro, NC where this crime is regularly committed. In his humorous but informative book, “The Grumpy Gardener: An A to Z Guide from the Galaxy’s Most Irritable Green Thumb” he states rules 8 – 10. 8. Prevent crape murder at all costs. 9. You can prevent crape murder by choosing selection that need little or no pruning – meaning select the right size for your space. 10. Never plant crapes near your pool. That one rings true with me because my step-daughter owns a pool and spa company and she absolutely hates crape myrtles. The tiny flowers block up the filters and must be skimmed up from the water. In my opinion, besides the pool issue, there is much to love about crape myrtles. With their long summer bloom, attractive seed pods and exfoliating bark, they are truly a four-season plant. The beautiful planting done by the South Boston Garden Club on US 360 near Ernie’s Restaurant shows how crape myrtles look beautiful in all seasons. I will leave you with the words of Liberty Hyde Bailey, cofounder of the American Society for Horticultural Science, “If a person cannot love a plant after he has pruned it, then he has either done a poor job or is devoid of emotion.” While we all are practicing ‘social distancing’ and Halifax County buildings are still closed to the public due to COVID-19, if you have gardening questions, you can reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to If you are unable to email, you can call and leave a message at the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at (434) 830-3383. Be sure to give us your first and last name, telephone number and the nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is routinely checked. Someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. The Master Gardeners will gladly guide you through properly pruning crape myrtles. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask, practice ‘social distancing’ and learn from other people’s mistakes and avoid being a crape murderer.