Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
"Crape murder" is a serious crime against Mother Nature.
This ill-advised pruning method on crape myrtle literally shears off the tops of the trees, taking trunks back to where they look like stubs sticking out of the ground. The practice basically ruins the plant and can eventually cause plant death.
"'Crape murder' is bad for the tree because it misshapes the tree, promotes weak branch attachments, encourages insect and disease and does not accent the qualities of the four seasons of a wonderful landscape tree," says Jim Orband, extension agent in Yorktown, Va.
Unfortunately, bad role models for this seedy practice are readily seen, especially in shopping centers where the trees are planted in spaces too small for mature growth. Mistakenly thinking commercial landscapers know what they are doing, homeowners copy the technique.
Crape myrtle has become one of the Southeast's most popular landscape plants, thanks to its 100 days of summer flowers in colors like pink, red, white and purples. It's also become among the most mistreated plants. Lopping off the top of crape myrtle causes ugly "knuckles" where you get a disproportionate bud bread -- instead of two to three bud breaks per stem, you get a proliferation of 10, 15, even 20.
Your summer cloud of flower power suddenly brews problems:
* Too many flowers vying for nutrients from the root system.
* Masses of blooms that block air and light getting to the foliage, making everything susceptible to powdery mildew.
* Succulent stems that mites and aphids love to attack.
* Branches become willowy and weak, causing them to bend and break when summer rains collect in the flowers.
Before you purchase a crape myrtle for your yard, consider where you plan to plant it and choose accordingly. If you plant a tree meant to grow 25 feet tall and you prune it to keep it 10 feet tall, you planted the wrong variety, says Orband. Crape myrtles come in all sizes -- from ground covers to shrubs to large trees -- so select the right plant for the right spot and end all that unnecessary pruning.
Instead of whacking your crape myrtle annually, prune selectively to remove crossing and rubbing branches so they don't grow into each other. Diseased and dying branches should also go.
"Prune a crape myrtle properly and you may not have to do it again for seven years," says Jim.
If you're guilty of crape murder, there is a way to bring your tree back to some semblance of its original beauty and redeem yourself.
* First, evaluate your tree and select two or three of the stronger shoots per "knuckle' the knob that develops when the topping cut is made and prune the other shoots off.
* Then, prune the selected shoots above outward-facing buds to begin to develop a new branch pattern. The plant will never again have its true or natural crape myrtle form but it will look better and grow healthier.
If necessary, crape myrtles can be reduced in height without topping them. Free publications at your local extension office cover healthy ways to prune trees and shrubs so they retain their natural beauty without taking over your yard.