Pests and Diseases: Crape Murder


While crape murder may not seem like a typical post for Pests and Diseases, it shows who can be the biggest pest to landscapes sometimes: people. People are the ones that decide to whack off the top third of a tree so that it blooms more.

Before I prattle on about the horrific practice of crape murder, let me accurately describe what it is and what it isn’t. If you are a neat gardener that doesn’t enjoy the winter appearance of the crape myrtle seed pods and remove them, you are not a crape murderer. If you remove broken or crossing branches from a crape myrtle, you are not a crape murderer. But if you do this:

crape murder

you are a crape murderer and I implore you to stop! I’m not sure why people think that removing a third (or more in extreme cases) of a tree is a good practice. I understand why “landscapers” do it and the answer is three fold:

  1. It’s easier to prune a tree by making a few large cuts than it is to prune correctly. You can murder a tree in about 5 minutes versus the 45 minutes to an hour it takes to prune a tree correctly to remove broken, dead or crossing branches. While the landscaper can charge the customer more for their time, few commercial customers are willing to pay.
  2. It gives an “added value” service to the customer. Again, the customer may not be willing to pay an hour per tree for pruning, but the landscaper can charge a few dollars more and the customer sees that something has been done. If the landscaper is already there applying mulch, it doesn’t take too much extra time to murder a few dozen trees.
  3. Because other landscapers are doing it. I’d like to find the person who started this trend and figure out their logic. Unfortunately, so many “landscapers” are not trained in horticulture and don’t understand the “why” of doing things, only the “how”. They see others doing it and they follow suit, to the detriment of the trees.


If you have been guilty of butchering your crape myrtles, take solace in knowing that many other folks do it too just because they don’t know how bad it is. It’s same thing that happens with mulch volcanoes…people see the landscaper down the street do it so they think it must be the right thing to do.


The first reason is that it’s plain ugly. Crape myrtles have beautiful structure and exfoliating bark that is really only seen during the winter. The silhouette of a crape myrtle in the winter can be the centerpiece of your garden instead of resembling something that your guests hang their coats on.

The second reason is that by making such drastic cuts, epicormic buds are forced to break. These buds lie dormant and the only time that they break is when the plant is put under undue stress. These buds are weakly attached to the stems and their resulting branches are easily broken during wind or ice storms. Also, the sheer number of buds is unsightly and results in a lollipop appearance where there is a huge ball of foliage sitting on top of a stick that is the trunk of the tree.

Another reason is that it’s just not natural. When will we learn that if you leave nature alone, it is capable of amazing things? Sure there are plants that need to be pruned judiciously like hedges (I don’t like them either by the way – too much work!) but a crape myrtle, in Zone 7, is a TREE! It’s not a plant that is supposed to be reduced in size by a third or more each year for the sake of a few more blooms. To me, it’s the same thing as pruning beautiful forsythia shrubs into little meatballs. What’s the point? A forsythia in its natural form, with its long arching branches, is a beauty to behold. And so is the crape myrtle when it is allowed to grow in its natural state with only corrective pruning. Let me know how often you see crape murder in your area by leaving me a comment below or sending me an e-mail to Happy Mid-Atlantic gardening!

February 14, 2012Permalink Leave a comment

Fall is for Planting


The Central Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association has been promoting a program this fall called “Fall is for Planting”. Even though it may be more exciting to plant perennials, shrubs and trees in the spring when everything is starting to flush out of its winter dormancy, it is much more beneficial to the plants to plant in the fall. Let’s discuss some of the reasons that this is true:

1. The soil temperatures are still warm, even at this time of the year in Zone 7. I imagine the further north you go, the soil temperatures are getting cooler but most should still be conducive to root growth. In areas like Zone 7 where the soil will only freeze in the top few inches, the roots will continue to grow throughout the winter. Just imagine all of those little roots growing and getting ready for the spring…

2. In the spring when the plants break dormancy, all of those little roots will be ready to take up water and nutrients which will give them a leg up over their spring planted companions. This translates into more established plants when the inevitable summer drought hits.

3. When we get into the period where the rain stops falling (usually July in central Virginia), the plants that were installed in the fall have sent out lots of roots and they’re not only growing out but they’re also growing down. What’s further down in the soil? You guessed it…moisture that isn’t readily available to plants whose roots haven’t reached that depth.

4. The last and perhaps the most important reason to plant in the fall is that it usually rains in the fall. That means less work for you and more even watering for the plants. I’m sure that we are all aware that not even the most technologically advanced irrigation system can water like God does…he’s the master for a reason you know.

There are a few plants that shouldn’t be planted in the late fall, say after the end of November in central Virginia. They are crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia) and pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumila’). The failures of many gardeners and landscape professionals can attest to this but if you have a microclimate where the soil stays warmer than your surrounding areas, you can certainly try to push the limits. Remember: just because the label says something doesn’t mean it’s written in stone. Variations of those guidelines happen all the time and the only way you can find out if it applies to you is to try it out. If you have any plants that you’ve pushed past what the tag recommends or you have had any failures with other plants that have been planted in the fall, e-mail me at Happy planting!

November 19, 2011Permalink Leave a comment