Crape Murder: Don't be Guilty

Thu, 10/08/2009 - 2:24pm
By: The Citizen

Fayette County Master Gardener

When you get to thinking about fall and winter garden chores, the one chore that you can permanently leave out is whacking your crapemyrtles with a chain saw. Known as “crape murder” in the gardening world, it puzzles me as to how this practice got started. Pruning or topping your crapemyrtles straight across is a needless practice that takes too much time and energy that can be put into other more satisfying and beneficial gardening chores. Not only does this method of pruning ruin the beautiful natural shape of the tree, it also causes aphids, week stems, ugly knobby branches, and a shorter life span of the tree.

There is even an ordinance in my hometown of Charlotte, NC that prohibits this type of pruning in areas that the city maintains. This is due to the unnecessary cost of pruning, it makes the tree unattractive during its long dormancy period, and it costs more money if the trees have to be replaced more frequently.

Perhaps this pruning practice emerged from the idea that because crapemyrtles bloom on new wood, topping the tree back each year would produce more flowers. It is found that this severe pruning does cause bigger flowers, but an unpruned crapemyrtle has more flower clusters.
Another reason for this pruning method might simply be picking the wrong size tree for an area around your house. Crapemyrtle varieties range from 2 to 30 feet in height.

There are so many wonderful new cultivars it pays to study the particular crapemyrtle you find at the garden center before you bring it home. It might look cute at the size that it is in the nursery, but plan for the tree’s full size at maturity. It won’t look so cute if it turns out to be a 30 foot variety and you have cut it back every year to fit in the corner of your house.

When pruning a crapemyrtle correctly that has a tree-form, keep in mind the principles of pruning any tree. The purpose of pruning is to correct problems with the main framework of the tree. This involves cutting out all dead wood and branches that are diseased or damaged, removing any branch that is rubbing against or crossing over another, and keeping the center open to allow more sunlight and air circulation.

If you’re trying to improve the shape of a particular crapemyrtle and it has more than one trunk, it is recommended that you prune it to 3 to 5 trunks, remove weak branches smaller than a pencil, and prune out the suckers at the bottom of the tree. You can also limb up side branches to the desired height if you want to walk under the tree or underplant with shrubs and ground covers. Keep in mind that pruning cuts should not be flush with the tree, but rather slightly higher than the area where it joins a main branch.

If your crapemyrtle has a shrub-form, it can be clipped as any shrub. The very small, compact crapemyrtle can be trimmed to about six inches above the ground if desired.

Many landscape companies and tree farms have come up with exotic and intricate methods of pruning crape myrtles. I have seen beautiful results with these methods, but they are rather impractical for the average homeowner.

Another pruning practice that is sometimes recommended is a light pruning after a crapemyrtle is finished flowering. This produces a second flush of blooms but is a controversial practice and is also impractical for a large tree-form variety.
The timing of crapemyrtle pruning is also important. In Fayette County I have seen a lot of crapemyrtles being pruned in the fall.

Crapemyrtles should be pruned in late winter or early spring before new growth occurs. Fall pruning encourages new growth too late in the season that will be more susceptible to injury from the cold and keeps the tree from going dormant. Severe cold spells can kill a crapemyrtle if it is not fully dormant.

If you’re still unsure about the whole pruning process, just remember that a crapemyrtle will bloom even if it is never pruned. Once a tree is topped it takes many years to renovate, and never truly regains its natural beauty. So if you’re thinking about getting out the chain saw this year, don’t! Go ahead and take the day off.

login to post comments