OK, hold on, I’m gonna rant a bit now.
Stop doing it. Just stop. Don’t start. And don’t let anyone tell you it needs to be done. Ever.
This is Crape Murder. The term, crape murder, began as a bit of a joke, but it’s become an accepted name for the annual tree butchering we see far too often.
Why is this done? Mostly because people have been trained to think it’s supposed to be done. Because crapes bloom on new wood the topping doesn’t prevent (although it delays) summer blooms. It might even increase the floriferousness of the trees. Because we still get great blooms, the practice continues. If topping prevented the flowers you can bet this wouldn’t have become an annual ritual. You might be able to control the size of the plant, but it’s better to start with a cultivar that’s better suited to your location. Crapes come in lots of sizes and colors suitable for every spot in your landscape.
So that’s it. That’s why crapes are often pruned so badly.
What do we lose when pruning like this? We lose the beautiful, natural shape of the tree. Trees, like all plants, grow in a fractal pattern. Smaller branches grow on larger branches, growing on larger branches, growing on larger trunks. Now look at that picture again.
See those big, ugly knuckles? Here, look closer:
This plant has fat branches that suddenly become little, thin stems from last year’s rapid growth. All those thin stems are one year’s growth. Those new stems are weak and weakly attached to the main branch.
When you prune like this, you lose something else; Time. You lose time every year having to go in an prune the tree again. That’s how some landscapers get more business. You pay them year in and year out to butcher your trees. So you either lose time or money pruning like this.
Crape myrtles are one of the last trees to develop foliage in the spring. So guess what you get to look at for 5 or 6 months out of the year? Now I realize that some of you might not cringe as much as I do when you see this. Some of you might even like this look. OK, then here are more things you lose.
Plant longevity. A plant that has to regenerate lots of new woody growth, along with leaves and flowers, will not likely live as long as one that’s pruned properly. So your tree may die an early death. Crapes grow like weeds and tolerate this treatment well–such a stoic plant–but even so, when the tree has to use it’s stored energy to regrow leaves each year to also regrow branches, it’s bound to take a toll.
Headroom. Yes, this weak growth will probably sag under the weight of the flowers and leaves–especially when wet. Just what everyone wants, a slap in the face while walking up the path or mowing the lawn. The branches may even break off, which means even more work pruning during the summer.
Sunlight. All this thick growth will increase the shade under the tree. Trying to grow grass under your tree? Forget it. It’ll probably be too shady in the summer.
The chance to see this:
So, what should you do with your Crapes? Most trees require some type of pruning during their lives. The most important time to do this is when the tree is young. That way you can direct new growth the way you want it and branches removed when young reduce the size of pruning wounds. Smaller wounds reduce the chance of pathogen infection. Crape myrtles occasionally need thinning. It’s always important to remove dead, diseased or damaged branches as well as those that rub on other branches or are growing toward the interior of the plant. If you hire someone to do the pruning, don’t ever ask them to trim your trees. Describe what you mean. If a landscaper doesn’t understand what thinning means–don’t hire them.
What to do if you are ready to change your ways? OK, you commited this crime in the past, are your trees goners? Maybe, maybe not. If they look like the tree at the top of this post, you’ll have a harder time, but if you’ve only been doing it for a year or two, there is hope to restore your tree. First, look at the growth since the cut. Choose one or two new branches to become the new main branches. Remove the others. Then throughout the growing season watch for new growth from the cut areas, rub or cut that out. The sooner you get to any new growth, the better. You might need to do more corrective pruning the next year, but you’ll be well on the way to reformation. The tree below has begun to look more natural after a couple of years of restorative pruning. It should have some thinning this year, but it’s looking great.
Rant over. You can relax, I’m much calmer now.