February is a time when crape myrtle trees wish they could turn invisible, or at least blend into the landscape so no one with a chainsaw could see them.
It could be the only way they escape the "crape murder" form of pruning that disfigures their natural beauty.
Crape murder is a term first coined by Southern Living magazine about five years ago when the publication featured a pictorial essay on how some landscapers - and unknowing homeowners - annually hack the gorgeous trees back to ugly stubs.
It's a lazy, unhealthy way to prune a crape myrtle.
"Pollarding, hat racking, topping are all the words used for improper pruning practices on crape myrtle," says York extension agent Jim Orband.
"This style of pruning causes a proliferation of bud break, causing excessive branching, weak wood unions and excessive mildew problems, resulting in fungicide sprays and a concentrated bloom on the end of a terminal branch.
"This pruning is stressful on the tree and will eventually lead to a weakened tree, causing death."
In fact, the February practices of pruning any shrub or tree is about more than just whacking at stems and branches. It's a serious decision-making process. Trees and shrubs should be allowed to follow their natural growth habit, and not be forced into cramped quarters.
The crape myrtle, however, seems to get more than its share of pruning pain.
Shopping centers serviced by landscapers out to make quick dollars are havens for stubbed-back crape myrtles. Homeowners driving through those areas see the improperly pruned trees, and not knowing any better, go home and mimic what they see.
"Crape myrtle is a tree and therefore should be pruned to a tree form," Orband says.
"There are varieties that will grow to shrub size, but do not think that you can make a tree become a shrub - successfully."
The crape myrtle is a delightful tree to have in your yard. It offers summer color in flowers for about 100 days, fall oranges and reds in the leaves and contoured and smooth, colored bark in winter.
"In some cases, I have seen trees come into bloom on June 15 that did not stop blooming until Oct. 10; no deadheading or second pruning was done."
PRUNING OTHER PLANTS. This month also is the time to prune many other trees and shrubs. Here are some timely pruning tips from Virginia Cooperative Extension and other gardening professionals:
Prune shade trees. They will "bleed," or drip sap from the pruned wound; this bleeding is not usually harmful.
Prune the interior branches of densely branched dogwoods so air and light can penetrate the foliage. You will remove some flower buds but this will help reduce the chance of powdery mildew on leaves during summer's heat and humidity. Pruning dogwoods after they bloom in spring increases the chance of spreading anthracnose, a soil-borne fungal disease that causes leaf wilt.
Prune to remove crossing, rubbing, diseased and dead plant material. A plant pruned so sunlight and air penetrate its interior is less likely to develop fungal diseases. Fungal spores like dark, moist places.
Shape hybrid tea and grandiflora roses to three to five strong canes, each about 18 inches long.
Prune santolina back hard.
Cut liriope back to ground level before new crowns emerge.
Each year, do staggered vertical cuts on one-third of nandina and mahonia stalks.
Prune junipers, hemlocks and arborvitae; avoid pruning back into the dead zone where new growth will not sprout.
Evaluate the structure of your Bradford pear tree and remove interior branches so air can move through the foliage. This helps eliminate the tree's sail effect during windstorms that cause the tree to split.
Hint: If you want to plant a flowering pear tree, select the Chanticleer or Aristocrat variety, which has a stronger branching habit.
Prune vines that bloom on new wood back to the lowest pair of strong buds; for vines that bloom on old wood, prune after flowering.
Remember, a properly pruned plant never looks like it's been pruned.
February is when you prune many trees and shrubs, so keep these tips in mind:
- Prune to remove dead, diseased and damaged branches. This type of pruning can be done any time of the year.
- Rejuvenate old shrubs to restore them to new vigor. Rejuvenation pruning means you cut the entire shrub back to the ground. Overgrown lilac, privet and spirea respond nicely to this drastic form of pruning.
- Prune to encourage vigor, healthy new growth and lots of flowers.
- Let natural air, time and Mother Nature not paint or other wound-coating compounds heal pruning wounds.
- Avoid pruning to keep a plants size under control. Instead, replace that plant with a variety that grows to fit the planting space.
- Prune plants to retain their natural form. When you prune a plant into a ball or cube, you create an outer veneer of green growth; no light reaches the interior of the plant, meaning no new growth happens there. Hedges, espaliers and shrubs used in formal plantings are often sheared into shapes.
- n To simply shorten a branch, make the cut at a slight angle about ¼ inch above a bud. Choose a bud that will produce a branch in a desired direction usually an outward-growing bud.
- Prune plants at the proper time. With flowering plants, the rule of thumb is to prune after the plant blooms. Know whether the flowers are produced on the previous years growth or new spring growth. If flowering is not important on deciduous trees, prune them during dormancy.
Summer-flowering plants that need pruning in late winter or early spring include butterfly bush, glossy abelia, clematis, lantana, beautyberry, rose-of-Sharon, PeeGee hydrangea and crape myrtle.
- When pruning trees and shrubs, locate the branch collar before removing any part. The branch collar is a swollen area with a rough look, the point where branches join the main trunk or larger branches. Make cuts just outside the branch collar; do not remove the branch collar.
- Keep pruning tools sharp and clean. Disinfect pruners between plants to avoid spreading disease; clean them with a general household disinfectant such as Lysol or just use rubbing alcohol.
- Purchase quality tools. You need a pair of hand pruners, lopping shears, pruning saw and a combination pole saw with loppers for most home pruning jobs.
- 10 a.m.-noon Saturdays. Learn how to prune trees and shrubs Feb. 15 in Seaford and Feb. 22 at Ken Matthews Landscape Nursery, Route 17, York County. Sponsored by York extension office. Free, open to public; registration required. 890-4940.
- 2-4 p.m. Feb. 16. Discussion with slides and hands-on outdoor demonstrations on pruning, especially roses and crape myrtles, at Smithfield Gardens, Route 17, Suffolk. Free, register; 238-2511.
- 10 a.m.-noon Feb. 22 and 26. Hampton master gardeners teach how to prune trees and shrubs at Bluebird Gap Farm, 60 Pine Chapel Road, Hampton. Free, open to public. 727-1401.
- 2:30 p.m. March 2. Learn the proper way to prune roses during a pruning clinic held by the Virginia Peninsula Rose Society at the Huntington Park Rose Garden, 7828 Warwick Blvd., across from the YMCA, Newport News. Free, open to public. 851-1140.
- For handouts on how to prune, contact your Virginia Cooperative Extension office: Gloucester (804) 693-2602; Hampton, 727-1401; Isle of Wight County, 357- 3191; James City County, 566-1367; Mathews, (804) 725- 7196; Middlesex, (804) 758-4120; Newport News, 591-4838; Suffolk, 923-2050/51; and York County, 890-4940.
- To see extension services pruning publications online, visit Virginia Cooperative Extension at www.ext.vt.edu and enter pruning in the search site box.
- For more tips about pruning and caring for trees, visit the National Arbor Day Foundation online at www.arborday.org or call (402) 474-5655. The organization also offers tree identification guides.
- Pruning and Training Plants by David Joyce. Line drawings and photos show you how to thin, rejuvenate and train many plants. $25. Firefly Books; visit www.fire flybooks.com.
- Pruning & Training, an illustrated plant-by-plant manual by the American Horticultural Society. More than 800 plants are grouped and detailed. $35. DK Books, visit www.dk.com.
These and other pruning books are available at Barnes and Noble Booksellers and local garden stores.
Kathy Van Mullekom can be reached 247-4781 or by e-mail at kvanmullekom@dailypress .com.