Friday, February 5, 2016

I Confess to Murder, and Will Commit Again Soon......Crape Myrtle Rehab 101

I did it.  I didn't really want to, but it was the right thing to do.  It ended up not being a big deal after all.  Waiting for the fallout is the hard part.  But I'll be doing it again, and probably often.  They deserved it.

"Crape Murder".  A term that's full of fun and intrigue.  You have to realize that when there's a clever term for something, it usually means it's pretty common.  In this case, that's a terrible thing.

In my defense, what I just did was re-murder.  Now I guess that's sorta like using  the word "overkill".  Double jeopardy comes to mind too.  The legal kind, not that game with Alex Trebek.  Anyway, once a tree, especially a Crape Myrtle, has been murdered, the only recourse that can ever make it right is to commit one more murder, but in the right way.

The first thing to realize is that some people have tunnel vision.  They may only think about a tree for the most obvious attribute.  In the case of Crape Myrtles, that attribute is prolific flowering.  But I would always argue that a tree should be more complete, and that structure is the most important thing, because you see it all year, instead of just a few days or weeks.  And if you think about and look around at trees wherever you go, the most beautiful trees have great structure.  You may see it, but not actually realize it. Around here, the most prominent trees are Valley Oaks, and their structure is always impressive with great tapered, twisty branches.  There are no visible flowers or fall color, so that argument isn't even there.  These trees usually look great in winter, especially if nobody has hacked them up.

Crapes have a fairly slender branching habit much like Japanese Maples, though generally straighter, more vertical, and more vigorous.  The pollarding process that's so rampant actually increases the branch diameter quite a bit more than it would be normally, since the upper energy that's removed in the murdering process focuses that energy into the lower branches and trunk.  The original murdering process is topping all the branches, which is almost never acceptable.  Some people think of topping or heading as only pertaining to the main trunk leader, though it's really applied to any branches, too.  Crapes don't usually have a strang main trunk leader, but rather a number of more or less equal scaffold branches.

Don't ever use this re-murdering technique to show anyone what your pruning skills are.  It's laughable and you'll look like an idiot.  It looks terrible, and IS terrible, but the only remedy.  If you do aethetic pruning for a living, you might well want to avoid doing this at the risk of losing respect.  You should, in fact, try to hide this as much as you can, which is really only by waiting until just before leaf-out so these silly cuts are hidden by lush foliage, if you know when that will be.  You actually must plead your case to everyone who may see the tree.  I found the best way to prove your point is by taking a pic, turning it into a drawing, printing it out, and drawing in what the tree will become after recovery, though there are various stages you need to point out, like after the first year, and after 5 or 6 years with very meticulous attention.  You need to convey that the tree won't look much better than it did before for at least 3 or 4 years, but then again won't look worse.  It would be great to document this process a few times a year for a number of years, but that has its obvious difficulties.

In simple terms, this re-murder involves removing the ugly knuckles/knobs/fists that arose from previous pollarding or topping pruning sessions and reactionary vigorous prolific re-sprouting of narrow shoots out of the tips of those branches, cutting the branch back to where it's a good start for developing new taper, and only allowing one or two new shoots (at the most 3 if there's a big hole to fill and the branch pattern isn't so noticeable in that part of the tree) to develop from that point on each branch until they become a nice extension of the poor mis-handled stump-limbs.  Pruning and pinching several times a year will be needed.  And it may well be embarassing to commit the re-murder and let people see what you've done, while assuring them that you know aht you're doing and it's the right course even though what you did looks almost exactly like the first totally botched pruning catastrophe by someone else that started the whole hot mess.  It's like fixing dryrot.  You have to tear it apart and start over, and there's nothing glamorous or pride-inducing about it.  You then need to determine whether to cut those new shoots during the summer since unchecked they'll grow 3 or 4 feet or maybe even 6 feet or more.  Cutting them will slow down the thickening a bit but increase ramification.  It's all gonna be a matter of cutting back over and over but with intent, and the balance of thickening and ramification and short-term/long-term is a judgment call.

You do need to realize that wherever you make a heading cut to a branch larger than something like 3/4" in diameter, that the transition to new extension branches will probably never be seamless, and the abrupt transition will soften over time but never completely disappear.  So you want to be precise about the angle the branch moves from there to hide the cut as well as move in the right direction.  The new, emerging branch will be angled a bit from the branch it's exiting, probably 3 to 5 degrees, at that point.  That's not always bad, since curving/twisting branches are frequently just a series of slight angles. And the heading cut will create a bit of a collar lump.  But you can train the new leader to be almost in line or go off in any direction you wish.  In most cases, closely in line for a short distance will be best.  Having one new leader on that branch makes it easier to keep the crown from crowding and direct it where you want, but the transition will be more obvious.  2 leaders emerging will look more like a wishbone, but the transition will eventually be less obvious.  If you go the route of the wishbone effect, it's better over time to train one of those two branches to be more dominant and more vertical, acting as the leader in that section, but you have time to figure it out.  What you don't want to do is allow more branches to come out only to remove some later, since each emerging shoot will add girth to the transition, starting the whole crazy swollen knuckle situation all over again.

Rehab of a murdered Crape is pretty rarely done, and exceedingly rarely done right.  I suppose most people who would commit the original heinous act are completely clueless to actually making improvements, really don't care or are misinformed and will continue on doing the same thing every year until there's no hope whatsoever.  And someone who inherits this fiasco is probably unlikely to see the potential.  I can't imagine that there would be a point where the tree could look as good as if it had been properly pruned in the past, or it it had even been totally ignored and left to grow naturally.  Both those conditions are a vast improvement over the butchery that's so commonly practiced.  So really, the best you can hope for is to be terribly diligent about cutting perfectly and often, and in a number of years the results will still be a vast improvement, if not perfect.   There are no guarantees things will look great.  Maybe in 20 years of well-managed growth, things might look almost undetectably normal, but that's a big maybe.  The luxury of having what you'd really like was lost early on.  It would be nice to show people early on before or shortly  after planting that there are really only two good options:  Let the tree grow almost completely unpruned for the duration; or only allow someone who really can do it right to maintain it.  Pruning it incorrectly does nothing but create an ugly tree whilst wasting many hours to do so.  And once you do any moderate to severe pruning, you have to keep doing it forever, or at least for many years.

Worst case, after rehab, the tree just never looks great, or you tire of the frequent care needed, and you cut it down, and either replace it or let a new tree sprout up from the severed trunk at ground level.  If the tree is gonna look terrible anyway, there's no real reason not to give it a couple years and make the best attempt you can and see where it goes.  If you really do decide to ultimately cut it down, it effectively will be like growing a new tree from that point at a much faster rate.  This will probably only work if you let it become a multi-trunk, with 5 or 7 main stems coming up, or one trunk if there's something like shrubs hiding the bottom couple of feet.  And you're gonna get a lot of suckers coming up from the ground and roots that need to be removed constantly.

This is no short-term deal.  The first year is the most critical, and will require plenty of pinching at the tips almost immediately when they emerge, while selectively leaving a lot of the new shoots that should pop up from epicormic (hidden dormant) buds in the lower section of the tree to develop either temporarily to thicken up the lowest section of each branch to increase taper, if needed, or allowing those shoots to become new well-placed secondary branches, since the original ones were unwisely removed due to poor judgment (everyone seems to enjoy removing all secondary branches from Crapes or some peculiar reason).  Most shoots will effectively be water sprouts, and there's nothing you can do about that but remove them or train them into more normal branches.  You'll need to make some cuts and calculate the taper to arrive at a given long-term height, and then maybe cut some limbs again as the canopy clears up enough so you can visualize the outcome.  If the branches you're cutting are big, as large as 3 or 4 inches, then you have to realize that for a taper that looks somewhat normal, you need to allow at least 20 and probably more like 30 times the length of the diameter of that parent branch, so it will ultimately need to be quite a bit taller than you might think.  Removing a 4" branch completely is probably a bad idea unless it can be completely concealed from clear vantage points.  But having a tree be taller and maintained is a lot better than stumpy and small or stumpy plus spindly and medium.  Remember, you can make the tree more airy to lighten up the look or make it so that light comes through or allows you to see out the window or something. And if all you care about is the flowers, but don't care what the tree looks like in winter, or anytime other than when flowering, for that matter, then all this about murder and rehab is irrelevant.

For the first year, to repair things as quickly as possible, you might be sacrificing flowering to some degree or entirely.  This needs to be determined as the replacement branches grow in, and cut them back at the right time.  This gets a bit involved, so stay tuned for further instructions.  If you don't understand where I'm coming from on this, then you probably shouldn't be touching your tree, since you don't understand the tapering, ramification, reaction, and related concepts.  Chances are, it's not an area you studied a lot.  In that case, you can cut it down as described above, hire someone that really knows what they're doing (and the guys on Youtube who say they know how to fix Crapes, really don't), or just live with ugly trees that look pretty good for a few weeks in the Summer (only for the flowers) but look hideous in the Winter and most of the year.  Maybe most people don't notice the issues, but we tree aficionados do.  I suppose if your home is no prize and treating the trees better than you do the home itself may not make sense, though you could argue that a great tree might distract the eye form an eyesore of a home depending on your perspective.  But if you have a great home, then you really want to have very good trees, or things just don't add up.

You can apply all this to other trees, but Crape Myrtles have strangely been the primary target for this operation over the last 20 years or so.  It used to be that Fruitless Mulberry trees were the ones getting all this nonsense, and sycamores to a degree, but they pretty much went by the wayside.  I suppose because the only apparent redeeming quality of mulberry trees to most people was the ability to grow into a sizable tree very quickly, and with sycamores, people are just overwhelmed at the size. This knuckle-worship isn't a good strategy, especially because the people that plant those trees are the same ones who think trees need to be kept small.

Have fun!

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