(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 2, 2007)
It has been four years since I stood in a barren yard and decided to turn it into a wild green oasis. Looking at it now, it is hard to trace the many steps that have been taken in its transformation and although it is far from the oasis I imagine, it is a work in progress that I assess every season.
My initial plan for a jungle get-away complete with Tarzan swinging on a vine, was modified somewhat when I came across a zone chart. Those jungle vines would not grow here and it is not tropical enough to suit Tarzan's life style. Limited by nature’s climate control, I looked around the area to see what was already growing here and decided those might be better choices. The only tree on my property was a giant holly, growing right smack dab in the middle of the yard. Any project I undertook for this yard would have to take Holly into consideration. At first I felt she was an obstacle to my plans, walkways would have to veer around her, water features would suffer from her falling leaves. The sunniest spots were around the perimeter of her 4feet by 30-foot thumbprint. She took up prime realestate in my limited space and I contemplated the cost to have her removed.
One day my 85-year-old neighbor leaned over the fence and offhandedly told me;
“I remember when that little bush was planted".
"Little bush? "
"Yea, it was just a little bush that got forgotten over the years, I guess. Next thing you know it was tall as a man and then tall as the house and now taller than you can see by just looking up."
Looking at him I saw the history in his face connected with the history of the tree and the history of this place. Two beings, who had withstood the test of time, who were here long before me, and one of whom would be here long after me. I called the arborist and watched with interest as they gave Holly a good trimming and shaping.
Still not completely giving up on an exotic ornamental tree, I ordered two Japanese Maples to frame the entrance door and as a bonus received a Silver Birch sapling. I planted the Birch on the rectangle next to the curb in front of the house and put a guard fence around it. I watered and fertilized that spring and watched it closely. I imagined it as big as Holly creating a graceful street canopy. After about a month I noticed it had not changed at all. It was not growing, but all around it, were small shoots of red edged stems. As I got on my knees to examine it more closely my octogenarian neighbor came over to see what I was doing. He was somewhat sympathetic to my gardening endeavors as we both had our beginnings in the asphalt boroughs of New York. I pointed out the dried up birch and the green saplings.
“You think the Birch is spreading out and sending up new sprouts?” I asked.
“Birch? That’s Crepe Myrtle."
Exasperated, I sat on the ground and received another history lesson. The story went like this:
"There use to be a huge Crepe Myrtle tree here. Big as those over there." I looked up the street and saw a row of Crepes, 20 feet tall.
"Now, the previous owner had two wives." I raised my eyebrows.
"No, not at the same time! The first wife was always planting something. She had roses and every kind of flower you could imagine around here. Everything was covered in bushes and vines and something was always in bloom. Then she got sick and eventually passed away. Everything got overgrown and weeds took over and the owner in his grief just let it go. After many years he married again and the second wife came in and started clearing everything out. By the time she was finished there wasn’t a bush or tree left except that Holly. They cut down the Crepe to the ground. And it’s been mowed over ever since."
I sympathized with the first wife but the clean and manicured landscaping of the second wife was what had attracted me when I bought it. Still, part of me wanted to see the first wife’s old garden come back so I pulled up the birch and started mowing around the murdered Myrtle. If, after all these years, it decided to grow back, who was I to stand in its way.
Before fall, Myrtle had grown almost six feet tall. Long spindly legs with a bushy top, she did not look regal like her sisters across the street or the ones around the corner which had a coiffed crew cut resembling hedges. The following year its blooms were so heavy that when it rained the branches hung down to the ground in an umbrella effect. I decided she needed some shaping. Taking as an example the crew cut look of the trees around the corner, I tried to cut her straight across the top . Luckily for Myrtle, I did not have the proper tools or height for the job. I wound up cutting off the thinnest branches and all crisscrossing ones and the small shoots near the bottom. She held up somewhat better in her third year but I decided to get professional help to get her on the right path.
I was told I had to make a decision. Tree or Shrub? The cutting process is somewhat different for each. I wanted her to be tall like the other crepes but I thought the manicured look of the crew cuts on the group around the corner looked professional. Well, I was told, he, as a professional would not recommend cutting my Myrtle that way. He could cut it into a bush shape to keep it low but the crew cut or “crepe murder” as this cut is called, would produce a spindly top, unable to support new growth, thus creating the umbrella effect I was trying to avoid. Myrtle had been murdered once and it would not happen again.
Ideally I should have started pruning the first year to train her into a tree form but with some much needed attention she could still grow tall and stately. Here are some guidelines:
1. The time to prune is February-April before new growth begins .
2. Avoid pruning in early fall, after flowering, because this forces new growth which is then susceptible to frost and prevents the tree from going dormant.
3. All the dead stems and crisscrossing branches and inside weak stems are removed. In this, the "natural pruning" method, only the strongest stems are left. All soft new suckers at base of tree should also be removed. This will not reduce the amount of blooms come spring, since blooms grow on new growth.
4. Remove all side branches up to where you want limbs to start.
Proper Improper Murdered Crepe
As with anything else in your landscape, proper maintenance specific to the plant helps ensure a beautiful specimen. This trial and error adventure with my Crepe Myrtle is an experience that will go down in my garden journal under murder mystery solved.