If you’re unfamiliar with it, crape murder is the practice of cutting back trunks to eight feet or so, regardless of the tree’s natural form or biological needs. Most crape myrtles have multiple stems, so the action leaves a cluster of ugly stubs.
I used to think this was done to keep crape myrtles from outgrowing their allotted spaces, but I suspect it has become a more invidious act, something that is now so common that folks are led to believe it’s entirely correct and, indeed, needed. Sometimes, the homeowner is the culprit, taking an understandable cue from the actions of landscapers or neighbors.
The practice isn’t confined to the crape myrtle, but there is something about the tree’s smooth, sinewy bark that invites a chop.
Winter is the optimum time to prune most deciduous woody plants, when they are dormant and their branch architecture is most evident. But to reduce the bulk of a tree by cutting the upright main stems to some arbitrary point is harmful to the tree and injurious to the eye.
Such pruning is called “topping,” and it increases the plant’s risk of disease while guaranteeing that a load of twiggy sprouts will erupt from below the point of amputation.
“A lot of people do it because they think it’s going to enhance flowering, but it actually delays flowering onset as much as a month,” said Tom Smiley, senior arboricultural researcher at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories in Charlotte. It also produces fewer blooms and tends to cause unwanted sprouting — suckering — lower on the tree, he said.
The sprouts beg to be removed the following winter, perpetuating the cycle. Topping in this way permanently disfigures the natural form. I wrote about all this in depth in 2015, and the message still holds.
An underlying problem is that many popular varieties of crape myrtle grow larger than people anticipate; the white-flowering Natchez will happily attain 30 feet in height and almost as much across after a couple of decades.
Crape myrtle species originate in Asia, but American breeders are the ones who have fully developed hybrids, for size, flower color and cold hardiness. There are varieties sized for every space; it’s just a matter of doing your homework before you buy one. “I have crape myrtles I have only pruned once or twice in 10 years, and they are still only 10 feet tall,” Smiley said.
That doesn’t help those with overgrown crape myrtles, however, unless they want to take the big step of removing them.
But there are ways of reducing the mass of a stout tree without resorting to carnage. One is to remove some of the lowest branches that interfere with paths, driveways and the like, an approach called limbing up or crown lifting.
Another solution is to reduce the canopy from the top — not by topping or giving the tree a buzz cut, but by cutting back outermost branches where they meet a lower branch. This is called crown reduction, and it applies to both big and small trees. But this requires knowledge and the ability to reach high branches. On smaller trees, this might be possible for the gardener with a pole pruner, but for most trees, this would be a job for a professional. For landscapers rushing from one site to another, it’s a lot simpler and quicker to just top the crape myrtle, often with that precision-pruning instrument we call a chain saw.
I really wish that more homeowners would develop an interest in pruning, not of big shade trees or anything that requires you to climb tall ladders or puts you anywhere near a power line, but of large shrubs, diminutive patio trees or shade trees when they are still young and small and can be safely tackled.
My list of essential tools would include at least a pair of work gloves, hand pruners, lopping shears and a pruning saw. The higher the quality of tool and the sharper the blade, the better.
There are rules, of course. Don’t remove more than a quarter of live wood in any one year; know how to leave the collar at the base of a pruned branch; and understand the sequence of cuts to avoid bark ripping on larger branches. Pruning is entwined with an understanding of how a tree grows — knowing, for example, that you can control the future shape of the tree depending on the orientation of the buds on a twig. (Generally, outward-facing buds will produce a more open and healthier plant.)
Some cuts present themselves. Dead branches should go, and broken ones should receive a clean cut. If two branches are rubbing, leave the one that is stronger and/or conducive to the overall look and health of the tree. Inward-growing branches are typically undesirable.
Be conservative, look at the plant from every angle before cutting, and if you feel as if you don’t know what you’re doing, leave it alone.
The key to fine pruning is to end up with a specimen that is groomed and structurally sound but still looks natural. Once acquired, it is a skill that will enrich not just your garden but also yourself. The downside is you won’t be able to look at an untended tree again without seeing a wayward branch and feeling the urge to fix it.
Tip of the Week
Wait until mid-February or later to start warm-season veggies and annuals. The germination of pepper, tomato and eggplant seeds is faster if their seed trays have bottom heat. Electric seed-starting heat mats are effective. Placing trays above a radiator or on top of a fridge may be a good alternative, but check soil moisture daily and move them to a bright spot once seedlings emerge.
— Adrian Higgins
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