Proper pruning can help avoid 'crape murder'

By Ginna Parsons
Daily Journal
TUPELO – I got an e-mail this week from Charles Skinner of Camp&S Landscape Construction Inc. about “crape murder,” the practice of butchering, instead of pruning, the beautiful flowering trees so prevalent in our area.
Charles gave a presentation recently to some folks in the Joyner neighborhood and he was wondering if I would pass on some pruning tips he’s compiled to readers, which I’m happy to do. Also, if you’d like to see a video about pruning crape myrtles, check out or catch our Spring Home Lawn and Garden special section, which will print in the Daily Journal on Thursday.
Here are Charles’ tips.
n Do prune when the tree is dormant, just before bud break, in the late winter or early spring, but only if the sap is not frozen. The best time to prune is January through April. Pruning between August and December has been shown to significantly reduce the cold hardiness of crape myrtles, increasing the risk of killing the tree during winter.
n Do remove broken, dead and crossed limbs. Remove suckers at the base of the tree and at the trunk.
n Do limb up the tree, by pruning off the side branches, if a tree form is desired, instead of a rounded shrubby shape. Try to do this before limbs get bigger around than a pencil, to avoid leaving a scar. Small cuts do less damage to the tree than large cuts, and heal more quickly as well.
n Do limit pruning to no more than 25 percent of the live branches in a single year. If necessary, prune neglected plants over a period of years to obtain the desired appearance.
n Do know that excessive pruning does not induce heavier flowering, but rather reduces it, due to the removal of significant plant carbon and nutrient reserves. Do encourage repeat flowering (if desired, and if you can reach) on cultivars that bloom in May/June, by removing seed heads just as they are forming. Leave the late summer seed heads from all varieties to fall naturally, as pruning these in late summer or fall reduces cold hardiness.
n Do refrain from pruning if in doubt. Under-pruning is easy to correct; over-pruning causes permanent damage.
n Don’t “top” the tree or “round over” the shrub by sawing off all the branches except the main trunks. Topping is perhaps the most harmful pruning practice known, according to the International Society of Arboriculture. Topping can cause immediate dieback and/or the growth of a “broom” or “pom pom”, which are long thin shoots that are grown from just under the bark. These are poorly attached and easily broken off, and a very dense “broom” can cause the tree to topple in high winds. Additionally, topping lowers the life expectancy of a tree by at least one-third and destroys its beauty.
n Don’t “pollard” the crape myrtle. This pruning method, along with “topping”, is called “Crape Murder” by Steve Bender, Southern Living magazine’s senior garden writer. Pollarding involves cutting off all the previous year’s branches to a “knuckle” or “knob” at or close to the main trunks. This type of pruning produces similar stresses to that of “topping”, including a shorter life span and an ugly tree silhouette before leaf-out. Some Southern cities, such as Charlotte, N.C., have ordinances against this type of pruning because it costs extra money for “unnecessary” pruning, it makes the tree unattractive while dormant, and it costs money to replace the trees more frequently. It is better to purchase appropriately sized cultivars to begin with or to relocate a tree if it gets too large for the site. (Crape myrtles are very resilient and tough, and are fairly easy to move.)
Renovating a mess
n Let a “murdered” tree with large diameter trunks (1-inch caliper or more) grow out for a season, and in early the following spring, select one, two or possibly three dominant branches per trunk to grow out over time. Prune off smaller side branches, taking out no more than 25 percent of the live branches in a single year. You may need to prune side branches over several years to allow the tree form to develop and to allow evidence of the big cuts to grow over.
n Smaller-trunked trees that need corrective pruning can be cut flush with the ground in early spring, and an odd number of trunks (3, 5 or 7) allowed to regrow in the natural tree form.

Ginna Parsons

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