The wrong way.

The wrong way. Stubs and ugly knots are signs of an improperly pruned crape myrtle. The tree could decline and die. (Kathy van Mullekom/Daily Press photo)

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.