There is no question that crape myrtles are among the most colorful of summer-blooming plants – that’s something that has been agreed on for 250 years, since the first plants arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in 1786. Their incredible ruffled flowers, just like crepe paper, and the vibrant colors guarantee them a prominent place in every warm-zone garden.
The trouble is, most older varieties grow into small tree, with 20 feet or more tall and wide quite normal. So while having one larger plant like that is a great idea, for most gardens today that would be about it. All that potential for summer color reduced to one color, in one place in your garden – surely it can be better than that?
That’s most likely what the breeders who changed things thought as well. “If we could have smaller shrubs, instead of larger trees, then crape myrtles could bring color in profusion to every garden.” At least, I like to think they were thinking that!
Today the issue is solved. There are now a good number of smaller varieties available, that are ideal for shrub beds, alone, or in groups if you have more room available. Let’s look at how to use and grow them, and meet some of the best.
How Can I Use Dwarf Crape Myrtles in My Garden?
While the place for a large crape myrtle is likely out on your lawn, the dwarf varieties fit perfectly into shrub beds. Most garden shrubs bloom in spring, and beds start to look dull and green by July. Adding crape myrtles, which begin blooming in June or July, brings great color at exactly the right moment – and keeps it going, because most of them bloom well into September, helped along by a bit of simple dead-heading from you. Plant them as a single bush, or in groups of 3, 5 or more (uneven numbers always look best). As a ‘rule of thumb’, space plants in groups about ⅔rds. of their width apart, for a continuous flow instead of that spotty look.
Often we need an accent where a bed ends, at the corners, or where a path turns. Often we don’t want to block the visual openness, so it shouldn’t be too tall. A colorful dwarf crape myrtle will fit the bill perfectly. A path can be turned into a floral way by edging with a row of them, or use them in those awkward narrow spaces between a driveway and a fence or wall. So much more colorful than yet another boxwood hedge.
Dwarf Crape Myrtles really come into their own as container plants, in pots or planter boxes. If you are in zone 8 or warmer, these can sit outside all winter. In cooler zones it is best to slide them out of the pot and put them temporarily in a bed. If you have an unheated garage or workshop space – it doesn’t have to have light – then dormant potted plants can be stored there for the coldest months. This even opens up the possibility of growing them in pots in zone 5, but don’t make the mistake of trying to bring them into the house – the warmth will mess up their growing cycle.
Growing Dwarf Crape Myrtles
The great thing about these plants is how easy they are to grow. Full sun is the first essential – research how shown how quickly even a little shade for a couple of hours a day will reduce blooming. This is also why they grow so well in areas with long, sunny summers. Outside of that, all you need is well-drained soil. It doesn’t have to be anything special, and even poor soils, dry soils and the often-nasty soil found in city gardens works just fine. Simply avoid anywhere wet, especially if that is through the winter months. Look for plants resistant to diseases, especially powdery mildew. Luckily most modern varieties are.
Plants in pots should be fed regularly with a liquid fertilizer for flowering shrubs – tomato food will also work well. Of course pots need a drainage hole, and don’t stand them in a saucer of water. Let the top few inches dry completely before watering again. A good potting soil would be something for outdoor trees, or even a cactus soil – you don’t want something that holds too much water.
Dead-heading is the secret to keeping your bushes blooming right into fall. Simply cut off spent flower heads as soon as the last blooms fall – cut back to the first full-sized leaf. New stems carrying more flowers will shoot out and be in bloom within a month or so. Trimming in spring is also a good idea. Simply shorten back the stems of the previous year by removing the weaker, thinner end sections. Crape myrtles take their time sprouting in spring, and it’s a lot easier to wait until you see the buds swelling, especially in colder areas. There the tops can even die down to the ground, but the roots will re-sprout, and bloom prolifically, although on a smaller bush.
Some Dwarf Crape Myrtles
Here are some newer varieties of dwarf plants that fit the bill perfectly.
These great plants were developed by Dow Whiting, who owns Garden Adventures Nursery, south of Springfield, Missouri. He named them after his daughters – that’s such a sweet thing to do! They all have green leaves, with gold, orange or sometimes red fall leaves.
Princess Lyla™ – suitable for the smallest garden, this pink-flowered princess grows just 18 to 24 inches tall and wide.
Princess Zoey™ – a good 4 feet tall, and 3 feet wide, this beauty has unique bi-color flowers, with candy-pink blooms scattered among the cherry-red flowers that fill each spike. (shown at the top of this blog)
Princess Jaden™ – also no more than 2 feet tall and wide, this plant has lovely pale lilac blooms for month after month.
Princess Holly Ann™ – 4 or 5 feet tall and up to 3 feet wide, cherry red flowers top every branch.
Princess Kylie™ – barely reaching 3 feet tall and wide, check out the gorgeous magenta purple-red blooms on this compact shrub.
As refreshing as the elegant cocktail they are named after, this is another group of dwarf crape myrtles that are real winners. The come from the nursery of the talented Mike Farrow in Earleville, Maryland. Mike created a group of similar plants in different flower colors. They all grow 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, with green leaves, and they have that all-important resistance to powdery mildew. They bloom 3 or even 4 weeks before taller varieties, making them great ‘stage setters’ for the display of your larger crapes. They keep going just as well, with dead-heading. The earlier Raspberry and Grape have been followed in 2021 by Guava and Strawberry. The names say it all about the color (guava is bright pink) and these plants are real winners in the dwarf crape myrtle stakes.
Check out our Crape Myrtle Page to see which dwarf crape myrtle varieties we have in stock at the moment – and check back in spring for lots of new arrivals! Happy planting!