Published on March 9, 2014
Restraint of saw and shears on crape myrtles By Tim Wolfe
Legend has it that when Michelangelo was asked how he was able to create such a magnificent statue of David out or a scrap piece of marble he replied, “all I did was remove everything that was not David”. It is my sentiment that whacking these beautiful trees year after year is not creating Davids but is rather as symbols of ignorance that depress me each February. Like sculpting, pruning is an art and must be studied and practiced. It’s my belief that crape myrtles are trees and should not be topped or otherwise molested.
I am not going to get scientific on you by talking about terminal or latent buds or auxins or any of that, but I hope to plant a seed that could change your mind about aggressively pruning crape myrtles. I can’t possibly teach you how to prune in this short presentation, just like you could probably not show me how you do what you do, but hopefully I can give you a new perspective. If it saves one tree from the buzzsaw then my time has been well spent.
If you are considering hard pruning your crape myrtles, please pause for a moment and ask yourself “Why?” If your answers are anything like: • Because everyone else does • I see the professional landscape crews doing it all the time at properties I like • I’ve always done it then I invite you put down the loppers or chainsaws and pull up a seat for a moment. All I ask is for you to forget for a minute what someone on google, your neighbor, or your landscape guy tells you and let me show you what goes through my head before I pick up any one of the many cutting instruments in my arsenal.
Here is one in my garden in Decatur. This happens to be a pretty mature Natchez variety that is growing close to my dwelling and could use a little pruning. One of the first things I observe it that the previous owner selected a good location for the tree, plenty of open space for it to stretch out and it provides some extra shade on hot summer afternoons. Wow! With the size of these trunks we are definitely going to need a chainsaw. Right? Not so fast. We will need a chainsaw but not for what you think.
So let’s get started. The color and texture of the trunks of crape myrtles are stunning and this one is no exception. They are like giant cinnamon sticks outside my windows. That being the case, I am going to want to preserve as many trunks as possible. The chainsaw will only be used in this case to complete some unfinished business from a few months ago when I reroofed my house and had to prune a few major trunks in a hurry one morning so the roofers could do their work. I pruned them leaving excess trunk and limbs so I could come back and correct the removal cuts at a later date when I had more time. These photos illustrate how I repaired those quick cuts.
Now that we got those out of the way lets appraise what we need to do next. Lets see here, these two limbs are crossing and rubbing on each other so we should remove one or the other to open things up and give it better form. Right? Well, that’s what a book or some article online might tell you, but I’m the Sheriff of my garden (and a few others) and this beautiful tree is in my jurisdiction, so let’s think about it for a minute. If I had a time machine I would go back and remove the limbs so they would not intersect as they grew, but since I don’t and these limbs are pretty mature and quite gorgeous, why would I do that? They are not doing any immediate damage to each other so there is no reason to remove either one. Plus it makes for a nice conversation piece.
Moving right along: I see a few smaller limbs that turn inward and crowd the scene. Thinning will help the tree have better form and allow a little more indirect light enter the side garden below. I approve this kind of discriminatory pruning as it has purpose, unlike topping.
So lets do that now. When I prune, I like to start along the lower outside first since this makes it easier to prune overall. If you start higher up and in the center there may be branches that will need to be removed that will be in the way lower down. Continue up the tree and remove any branches that point inward. If there are two branches that do the same job (ie. growing parallel to each other from the same or a different limbs), pick a favorite, and remove the other one but use good judgment like I did earlier with the larger branches.
Continue up until you have decluttered the canopy at a height you are comfortable working. In my case here I used hand pruners, a pole saw and pole loppers. I’m not really into climbing trees, but I did have to climb into this one to rescue my loppers from a limb that pinched them and wouldn't let go. This job took me about an hour and yielded a small amount of debris that I will use in my firepit tonight and perhaps roast a hotdog.
Did I do a perfect textbook job? No. And do I care? No. I don’t have to impress anybody (and you don’t either) but I didn’t butcher my tree, so I can sleep good tonight. With my tree in this demonstration I could have left it alone and it would have been considered fine in my book. However, the thought sawing the limbs 3-10’ from the ground makes me not want to get out of bed for a week. So if I can help just one person think twice before breaking out the chainsaw or hiring someone else to be the trigger man for them, then like I said earlier I feel like this was worth it.
I’ll post some photos later this summer when it’s in bloom. In the meantime, if you are confused and not sure what to do then the best thing to do is nothing , because once you have removed too much of David, he is no longer David. Feel free to contact me with questions at (404) 569-4455 or firstname.lastname@example.org And find me at www.timwolfedesign.com
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