Thursday, January 5, 2012

Crape Myrtle Mutilation Continues Unchecked

A harbinger of the New Year unhappily but inevitably arrived when I was back in East Texas over the holiday break. I headed with my wife to jointly risk our mental health by shopping at the Big Box Store during the Dead Week after Christmas, when sales abound. We were not shopping for bargains but simply trying to find a holiday six-pack of bottled Coca-Colas to give to someone. No luck. When Christmas ends, for the big-boxers it is out with the old before the eggnog has been digested. Gone are the decorations, cards and artificial trees. In place by New Year’s: Valentine’s Day cards and candy. These days in retail America, merchants uneasily lurch from one holiday to another, imploring folks to “Buy, buy buy!”

But I digress.

What caught my eye, as we pulled into the asphalt wasteland, were landscape workers busily mutilating crape myrtles planted in the strip of dirt bordering the fast-food restaurants near the Big Box Store. Perched on stepladders and armed with lops, they happily hacked away at these lovely trees, cutting the past year’s growth back. What remained was an ungainly skeleton. Most people apparently continue to believe that, for this loveliest of Southern ornamentals to bloom in summer, it must be pruned in January.

Most people are wrong. At least about crape myrtles.

Crape myrtle mutilation is a Southern tradition from Georgia to Georgetown, Florida to Floydada. Google “crape myrtle mutilation” and dozens of links arrive, most from conscientious arborists and landscapers who decry this barbaric practice. I once belonged, by virtue of slapping a bumper sticker on my Jeep, to a loosely formed organization led by a Deep East Texas landscaper and freelance gardening columnist for the paper I published in Nacogdoches, aka the Oldest Town in Texas. Pink and green “Stop Crape Myrtle Mutilation” bumper stickers soon graced, well, dozens of vehicles. Thousands of words were published in various newspapers and elsewhere, begging people to quit hacking away at the myrtles. I contributed my share of commentary to the cause. Talk about a tree falling in a forest. The hacking continues unabated Behind The Pine Curtain.

Crape myrtles come in various sizes. Folks who want mini-myrtles should buy the variety bred to remain modest. Left unchecked, most crape myrtles over years will become stately trees reaching upwards of 40 feet in height. Their blooms are luscious yet hardy, able to thrive in 100-degree summers with little water. And yes, they can survive an annual mutilation, but the end results are trees with thick trunks and spindly branches.

I admit that I am a recovering crape myrtle mutilator. I lived in Nacogdoches at the time, and as a single man had purchased a modest house. January arrived, and I hacked away at the half dozen large crape myrtles in the backyard, as instructed by a couple of my buddies who were trying to be helpful. I spent most of a day risking a spinal-cord injury perched on a rickety stepladder, snipping off branches. Then I had to haul the detritus to the curb. While complaining later that week about my sore back, our gardening columnist — the originator of the famed bumper sticker — overheard me.

This is the way I remember it, acknowledging he might have a different version:

“You don’t have to prune crape myrtles,” he said. “You can just let them grow. Pruning them doesn’t help them bloom; it just makes them look ugly.”

I was delighted to discern that I had spent my last weekend sweating in January while carving up crape myrtles. The gardening columnist had a convert, and over the past 15 years or so I probably have convinced perhaps 10 other kindred souls to stop this insidious practice. That leaves the vast majority of Southern landscapers still whacking away, along with the non-believers and those who just haven’t yet learned the gospel: No pruning necessary.

As for the landscapers, not to be uncharitable, but there isn’t a lot of landscaping work to be done in January. The grass isn’t growing, leaves have quit falling, and it’s too early to plant for spring. Mutilating crape myrtles provides an excuse to keep hard-working folks on the payroll during those slow months. I appreciate the need to keep money flowing for workers, to buy gasoline, etc. I just wish landscapers could think of something else to justify their pay other than turning tens of thousands of crape myrtles into ugly stumps until spring arrives. As for the homeowners out there who own crape myrtles, I hope you read this before spending hours engaged in a totally unnecessary activity. Just think. You can use that time to head back to the Big Box Store and check out what is on sale.

Or you could read a book. That’s my plan. Our front-yard crape myrtle might reach the roofline by this summer. At least I hope so. No trimming necessary.

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