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Avoid 'crape murder' by properly pruning trees

Crape myrtle is one of the most commonly used flowering trees in landscaping today, because it provides abundant summer color with a minimum amount of maintenance.

Crape myrtle is ideally suited for community plantings, because it's long-lived, withstands droughts after becoming established, and is relatively free of disease and insect difficulties.

It also has the dubious distinction among gardeners and horticulturists as the plant that gets butchered in the worst way by property maintenance companies and homeowners. In fact, there's even a term - "crape murder" - to describe the horrific pruning that many unfortunate crapes must endure. It isn't far off the mark.

The plants don't seem to mind particularly, as they are actually stimulated by extreme pruning. But to those of us who empathize with abused creatures, the sight of mutilated crape myrtles is hard to stomach.

Crape myrtles are trained by nurseries into two basic shapes: single-stemmed or multi-stemmed. Pruning crapes so they retain the appropriate form is relatively simple.

Prune the trees in the winter, when they're dormant. Crape myrtle flowers bloom on new growth, and pruning increases the new shoots that form flowers while reducing vegetative growth. This funnels the energy of the plant into new growth and flowers.

Pruning, however, is not essential for flowering. Some of the most spectacular floral displays can be seen on old, unpruned crape myrtles along roadsides. Flower clusters are usually smaller on unpruned crape myrtles, but the number of flower clusters is greater.

For trees that are just the right height or shorter, simply prune off the old flower heads and seedpods. If the tree was perfect last year but grew too tall over the summer, remove just that growth.

Always remove any suckers that have sprouted from the roots or lower trunk. The key is to not allow the trees to get so overgrown that extreme pruning is ever necessary.

Sometimes, though, we may forget to do our yearly maintenance pruning, or maybe we take over a property where the previous maintenance person did a lousy job, and a harsh pruning is necessary.

Begin by identifying the main stems and remove any others that might have suckered from the roots. Next, prune out any branches that rub and any branches in the interior of the tree that have suckered.

Then, decide the height you wish the tree to become. Make cuts at the very top of each trunk to remove any growth above that height. The tree may look a little flat-topped, but you can make shaping cuts to make the canopy the shape you want. I prefer the very top to be a little flat and to taper the sides into a rounded shape.

You can purchase crape myrtles now through Gwinnett County Extension Service. The trees are available for $5 for one-gallon sizes. The cultivars include: Natchez, Catawba, Pink Velour, Sioux and Arapaho.

For an order form, visit the extension office, located on the fourth floor of the Gwinnett County Government Annex in Lawrenceville; call 678-377-4010 or visit http://county.ces.uga.edu/gwinnett/events/plantsale.pdf.

Timothy Daly is an agricultural and natural resource agent with the Gwinnett County Extension. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.