MASTER GARDENER — Anticipating Spring? Try winter garden cleanup.

Published 12:02 am Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Gardeners, another cold snap has quickly come and gone, fortunately for us! How lucky we are to live in an area that doesn’t remain severely cold for weeks or months at a time.

The few days of frigid temperatures we receive is more than enough for this gardener and makes me long for springs’ arrival.

Many of you (like me) purchase seeds from numerous seed catalogues you’ve been “leafing” through the past couple of months, or perhaps harvested seeds from lasts years flowers and vegetables (as I did) and begun the process of germinating seeds in trays filled with seed starting mix, positioned on warming matts to aid in germination.

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And just as a thoughtful reminder, it’s time to germinate tomato and pepper seeds now so they can be ready for transplanting into your gardens by mid to late March.

The anticipated last frost date for our area, according to the Farmer’s Almanac is March 16th (give or take a week), just remember to keep frost protection available for sensitive plants, especially tomatoes and peppers that have a tough time rebounding from temperatures below 40 degrees F.

The local weather pattern this week will warm considerably, into the 80’s or even higher in some areas.

Several spring-like things are most certainly going to occur in the upcoming week’s: trees will begin setting buds to flower and form leaves, lawns are breaking dormancy and will slowly become green and the mosquito population of Southeast Texas will explode, growing exponentially!

Many of us will be working outdoors over the next few weeks cleaning up, raking the yard, or simply removing the mess caused by cold weather. It’s still a bit too soon to be removing damaged limbs or cutting shrubs and perennials plants back.

Spring will be upon us before you know it and I want to get a head start with topics of discussion! One of my personal favorite gardening tasks is tree and shrub pruning which I perform every year. Each year, I also have gardeners request me to review how to prune Crape Myrtles in particular.

A Crape Myrtle is a small, multi-trunked tree (or large shrub) which unfortunately, way too many gardeners adhere to the practice of crepe myrtle butchery. It is more commonly known as crepe myrtle “murder”, and before spring arrives each year, I write an article to address the unfortunate massacre.

Drive around any neighborhood and you most certainly will find “butchered” Crepe Myrtle trees. The image uses an auto’s ignition key placed into the tree’s trunk to highlight damage. This tree has been repeatedly “cropped” over many years with black fungus growing around the gnarled knots, setting the stage for disease progression and most definitely an early demise. (North Carolina Cooperative extension).

The phrase “crepe myrtle murder” was coined in 1997 Southern Living Magazine article, referring to late fall and winter practice of severely cutting crape myrtles down to stubs. Disappointingly, any of us can drive through the Golden Triangle (towns and neighborhoods), witnessing firsthand the effects of this horrendous pruning style.

People wake up (landscapers & gardeners) severely pruning crepe myrtles are destroying the integrity of the tree and will provide it a slow death due to disease or structural failure. Structural weakness is caused by “cropping” the tree with a chainsaw. Crepe myrtles are trees, and they shouldn’t be forced into being something they cannot become (also one of life’s lesson)!

Using a chainsaw to prune crepe myrtles, and removing all top growth, while the fastest pruning technique is by far the most destructive and disastrous. The tree will suffer extreme damage and most likely will never fully recover!

Butchering crepe myrtles’ trunks or cutting their trunks to the same height forces the tree to grow from where the pruning occurred. Utilizing the “cropping” technique year-after-year, the tree forms mangled knots, diminishing its aesthetic, and destroying its inherent beauty for many years. Further, by “cropping” the trees’ trunks and limbs, its life is shortened.

Slender, weak branches will grow from cut areas, which are unable to support the weight of its’ blooms, meaning they will break with wind gusts. The knots formed grossly detract from what should be a large, graceful, billowy, vase-shaped tree structure lending a profusion of blooms for the spring and summer months.

Follow the tips below to prune Crepe Myrtles:

  • The best time to prune is now (Winter).
  • Start by removing shoots from around the base of the tree (called suckers).
  • Remove dead and crossed branches (branches which are rubbing against each other).
  • Remove skewed branches (branches that are incongruous with trees’ vase shaped form).
  • Remove branches growing inward towards the center (maintain vase-like structure and circulation.
  • Never leave partial branches, cut branches back to the trunk.

John Green is a Certified Texas Master Gardener. If you have gardening questions or need more information, contact the Orange County Master Gardeners Helpline at 409-882-7010 or visit txmg.org/orange, Orange County Texas Master Gardeners Association on Facebook or email extension@co.orange.tx.us.