Across Virginia, one of the most popular trees is the crepe myrtle. For months, shades of pink, purple and red light up medians and neighborhood streets. But there’s a controversy about how to take care of these beloved trees. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
Spring is here and in neighborhoods across the state, residents are out in the yard, making room for new growth, rakes, leaf blowers and loppers in hand. Along with this annual Spring cleaning, comes a tradition that makes some bristle. It’s called crepe murder.
Meg Turner is a Richmond-based landscape designer.
Turner: So a crepe murder or maiming is when you prune it so that you cut off the top of every branch and it doesn't matter whether you cut six inches, in my book, or two feet or ten feet.
Drive around any neighborhood, and you’ll see it. Gone are the graceful branches, that slightly twist and bend, giving each tree its taper and character. What’s left are sparse stubs, some just a few feet off the ground. Numerous shoots or suckers will emerge from the amputations, which some call summer’s “crepe horror.” Repeat offenses will create “knuckles” on the limbs, a lasting disfigurement. Turner uses a blog and social media in her campaign to stop this “senseless butchery.” Properly maintained, Turner says, crepe myrtles provide four seasons of interest.
Turner: It’s got a beautiful form and exfoliating bark and those are shown off really nicely in the winter. In the spring leafs out, a little bit late. Summer, it blooms, there are white, pink, red, purple cultivars and it blooms for a long time so I think that’s why people like to use them a lot and then fall foliage on most cultivars is gorgeous, reds, golds, things like that. It’s a loved tree, it’s also extremely hearty and tough.
Turner suggests I get in touch with arborist Peter Girardi to find out how he maintains with these trees. Girardi works with Truetimber Tree Service. Today, he’s eyeing up a trio of tall crepe myrtles. The client would like them to take up a smaller amount of space.
Girardi: In the past these trees had been pruned really low and then not so low and then this client wants them pruned low or feels they’re too big for this site… We’re trying to figure out where to reduce these trees and there’s not many branches to cut back to.
Girardi estimates that probably all of his clients have crepe myrtles and he’s helped rehabilitate many of them.
Girardi: We do a lot of restoration pruning. So they bought a house and they don't want that crepe murder look on their crepe myrtle but they love the crepe myrtle or they had it prumed a couple years earlier, they didn't realize what they were signing on to and came home and were not satisfied. So what we can do is take those multiple stems and either reduce it to one or two stems depending on how much we want to prune out at one time and get it back to a natural flow.
In the back of the house, Girardi’s crew is shaping up a couple crepe myrtles. He explains the proper technique.
Girardi: I would start with the base, prune out any suckers- long shoots that are growing out of the base of the tree.
Girardi: Cut it back to a branch that is at least a-third of the stem diameter so that one little sucker off that little limb is about a third of the cut that he just made so when you make those pruning cuts back to a third aesthetically it looks decent and the tree is likely to survive it. Some trees if you made a pruning cut and it was not a third that limb may eventually die.
Topping an oak, maple or other large trees can be dangerous, says Girardi. That’s not the case with crepe myrtles, but he does try to discourage clients who request that “lopped off” look. So how did crepe murder or maiming become so widespread? Enter “how to prune a crepe myrtle” into an online image search, suggests Girardi, and you’ll get lots of results for improperly pruned trees. Drive past shopping centers, he says, and you’ll see landscaping companies doing it too.
Girardi: They do take a passion for it, I can tell that they are artists out there trying to make it look perfectly rounded over and topped. I think that’s what people see, they see it at the shopping center when they're going shopping and they see it next to where they parked and they’re like, “Well maybe that's what I should do with my crepe myrtle,” not really knowing the reasons why.
Girardi only prunes his own crepe myrtle once every three or four years, when it starts to get in the way of the sidewalk or driveway. Same for Meg Turner, who describes her approach to pruning as “darwinist.”
Turner: It looks like they were cutting there for a long time….
Back at Turner’s house, she points to where a giant old crepe myrtle was maimed at some point in its decades old life, once at about 4 ½ feet high, another at 8 feet high. She’s been guiding it back to a natural shape.
Turner also helps property owners restore their maimed trees and we head to a client’s house to see a success story.
Turner: Right there, do you see those knuckles. If you look around, at that point they stopped topping and would thin and they selectively pruned out where you had the bunches of branches coming out of those knuckles and over time it’s taken on its natural tapered form.
There’s one more stop we need to make. Turner’s got a favorite row of crepe myrtles that show how restraint, along with proper pruning will yield a stunning tree.
Turner: You see that whole tapering effect and the "light and airy" and it's fine to leave the seed heads on there. It's just a feel, a natural feel. Pruning in general, you just have to get out there and do it and the more you do it, the more you get a feel for that particular tree or shrub. It's fun.
Turner and Girardi also warn about volcano mulching, piling up high around the trunk of the tree, which can cause disease and decay. They suggest just two to three inches of mulch spread flat a few feet around, but not touching the trunk. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.