By Elaine Simmons and Dean Amel
The gardening term “crepe murder” has been called the high crime of horticulture. If refers to turning crepe myrtles or other trees into ugly stumps by indiscriminately cutting the ends of healthy branches. This practice creates stress on the tree, can lead to decay, and destroys the natural form of the tree. No one should do this to any tree.
Large shade trees should be pruned by reputable companies with trained arborists specializing in tree care; these are different from a lawn service. Smaller ornamentals are suitable for select trimming by owners, but it is important to know what you are doing. Websites such as the International Society of Arboriculture (Trees Are Good), extension services from universities such as Oregon State or Clemson, and even commercial websites such as Fiskers provide good information on basic principles of pruning: tools, techniques, when to trim and what to trim.
You can also call a local arborist in for a walk-through for all your trees to learn more about what to trim and how. Some people hire consulting arborists, who are paid to evaluate your trees but not to do any tree work, because such professionals don’t have any incentive to recommend unnecessary tree work. If cost is an issue, you can Google Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria, a group of volunteers who have gone through classroom and field training on how to plant and prune trees. Tree Stewards are not professionals and can’t advise on tree diseases and cannot do extensive pruning, but they love to give free advice.
Often the pruning problem starts when the tree is planted in the wrong place and gets bigger than the owner desires. Thus, it is important to know the mature size of trees before you install them, since no tree should be topped because it is too big.
What should you trim? Weak, dead, or diseased wood is fair game. Crossing branches are also candidates for pruning. Very select trimming is also acceptable to increase air circulation and penetration of light. But please, the less you trim the better and be aware that poor pruning can wound a tree in such a way that it is damaged forever. Pruning can be like giving someone a bad haircut; there’s always one more cut you need to make. So please be careful and remember that it is much more expensive to remove a large ailing tree than it is to take proper care of it throughout its life.