Whodunit Mystery

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Everyone loves a good mystery. I can really enjoy a good mystery murder movie, trying to discover “whodunit” before it’s revealed. It can be very unnerving as you consider all the possibilities. You start noticing every small detail, hoping to read through the lines. Well there are signs of a different type of mystery happening all over the county, and I just can’t find out who the culprit is. Honestly, I am not sure if I want to know. The mystery I am referring to is what many affectionately call “crepe murder”- the diabolical distortion of a beautiful small shrub or tree by hacking the top off. Unfortunately, it is not only crepe myrtles that are getting the hatchet; I have seen the aftermath of someone systematically butchering ornamental flowering pear trees, mostly Bradford. Sadly, there will be repercussions to this atrocity, though it may not be seen for several years.

First, to debunk the myth that many believe topping back the crepe myrtle increases flowering – not true. Yes, you will have a huge flush of large flowering panicles early on, but afterward, there will be few, small, and sporadic flowering the rest of the flowering season. Research has shown that leaving the plant in its natural form will present more flowers over the entire season. Crepe myrtles come in a great variety of sizes and colors, from 1- to 2-foot ground covers to 20-foot trees. If you do your homework before you purchase or plant, you can select the right size for the appropriate space in your landscape, therefore, reducing maintenance and pruning.

Pruning is a necessary part of gardening, but the goal should be to minimize, not maximize plant cuts. I like to think 3-D when I prune. I prune for disease, damage, and direction. Remove diseased tissue as soon as detected. If limbs are broken or damaged after a storm, remove these immediately to minimize the risk of secondary problems such as rot and disease. If only part of a branch needs to be removed, make a heading cut above an outward facing bud or side branch. If an entire branch needs to be removed, make a thinning cut just outside the branch collar of the stem to which the branch is attached. Do not apply any materials (pruning paint, etc.) to the cut ends. Encouraging new stems to grow away from the center opens up the plant, increasing light penetration and air movement and reducing potential wind damage and insect (aphids) or disease (powdery mildew) problems.

The severe heading back I have observed in the area will cause the growth of small numerous weak limbs at the location of the cut. These spindly limbs are weakly attached and very susceptible to wind damage. They are also much more prone to disease and insect damage. This practice weakens the tree and can cause early death. I predict the same fate for all the Bradford pear trees that are being pummeled. So just say NO to “crepe murder” and contact North Carolina Cooperative Extension of Robeson County for pruning recommendations.

For more information, contact Mack Johnson, Extension Horticultural Agent, at 910-671-3276, by email at mack_johnson@ncsu.edu, or visit our website.

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