Friday, March 14, 2008

Hey! You out there! Do you know what you're doing??

When people ask me for a low maintenance landscape, they can't have crape myrtles in mind. 'K, can't move on to other subjects 'til I get the crape myrtles off my mind.

If you plant one of these pretty babies where it will grow over your driveway or walkway, and you mind the mess, or, if you let someone design it that way for you, well, dang. What're you going to do?

For a lot of people, the solution is pull out the garden saw. Problem is, the more a plant is pruned, the more it grows.

Crape myrtle is one of the coolest small Southern trees. A lot of trouble, though, with the messy blooms, seed pods and all. Concrete and crape myrtles are not a good combination if you're looking for that low-maintenance yard, unless you don't mind a little mess.

Neat parallel stacks of crape myrtle trimmings have been sitting out for pick-up for a few weeks now, and everywhere I look to see how my neighbors are trimming their trees.

Uhm, why?

You people are killing me with the butchering of these trees.

Please, you don't do this to other trees. Why crapes?

Maybe it's their smooth, hard trunks you envy.

Seriously, I've had people asking me to prune their crapes ever since I've been in business. Different places, different decades, same request. I'll do it, and believe me, I take my time. The older a tree the more you have to look at it, every limb, every branch, all the twigs.

There is a right way to do it. The sooner you look over the tree and prune off limbs that are going to cross and rub against each other, the better. If you want the tree to grow thicker, cut the branches back a little to where the buds grow in a good direction. Cut the seed heads back after the flowers have fallen off in the summer if you want the tree to bloom again, or if the mess from the seeds bums you out. If some(idiot, excuse me)body has planted a beautiful specimen four feet from the corner of the house, branches growing towards the house will need to be pruned.

Why do you do it? I'll often ask a client this to help establish a line of dialog, to understand what they are trying to do with a landscape.
Many answers, but the bottom line is this: know the variety before you plant it. Choose for full-grown size and growth habit (ie upright or spreading) even before you choose the flower color. If you don't want to clean up behind them, don't plant them where this becomes a problem. (Like overhanging walks or drives.)

Geez. Get me off this subject, already.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

If They're Going To Hide The View Don't Plant Them There

Sometimes there is a bit of disconnect between what I think I'll be doing at a client's house, and what I actually find when I show up. Yesterday is a good example.

My Job of the Day was trimming a 'few' crape myrtles, which turning out to be ten trees.

I had a seven foot stepladder to work with.

The lady of the house wanted me to commit 'crape murder', cutting the trees halfway back to a height of ten to twelve feet.

Crape myrtle is a medium sized, spreading tree which drops leaves, blossoms and seed heads through most of the year. In the right location it is a gracious Southern belle. Ideally it has an open structure, with no crossing branches, and a nice, broad U shape in the crotch where the limb meets the trunk. The smoothy, sinewy limbs of a mature tree are sensual, and a thing of beauty if allowed to develop naturally. A tree in the right location should need no more pruning than to remove limbs that cross or grow inward, damaged limbs, and, to encourage fullness or encourage re-flowering, stems no larger than a pencil. Unfortunately, they are often planted so close to houses or driveways or sidewalks that the homeowner feels compelled to keep them tightly contained.

The photo on the left (if it doesn't show up sideways) shows a fairly upright growing tree, 20' tall, at least, with a multitude of branches. Whoever cut them back before didn't understand what they were trying to accomplish, and thick limbs cross other thick limbs, growing together in some places and rubbing badly in others. Limbs grow straight up at a sharp angle around the stubs of earlier cuts, creating a weak structure than could break easily under the weight of heavy, wet blooms. Many limbs grow inward toward the interior of the trees. One tree had inexplicably died half way back on most of the major trunks, and sprouts struggled to catch back up.

Clearly, they needed attention. But agreeing to murder them was going against everything I believe in and preach about as a gardener. Why, why why? Just because I need the work? The day before another client and I had decided to let her crapes go uncut. I had my orders, though, and didn't argue for the trees. Such is my crime.

Stupid, stupid me. Not only did I go against my principles, I did a poor job on the trees. The ladder was too short to be safe, and the extension chain saw I had in the truck was too heavy, I thought, to heft into those 20' trees. I struggled through the job with a set of loppers, and the resulting cuts had a sharp angle, not unlike spears, as a result of reaching up so high. The client started to fidget about how long it was taking, so I did not even do a proper job of thinning out the crossing limbs. The end result was okay, but nothing to be proud of.

If I had dropped by this house the day before to check out the trees first, or if I had taken photos of them when I was there the month before, I would have seen what I was in for and prepared accordingly. I would have had a bigger ladder.