Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Pollarding, or just plain murder?
Pollarded crape myrtles, National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
It's that time of year again, when southern homeowners and landscape crews look at crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia species and cultivars) with murder in their hearts. "Crape murder", as the brutal pruning of crape myrtles is often dubbed, is also becoming depressingly common here in Washington, DC with many mature, beautiful specimens being hacked to bits. Who on earth thinks this looks good? Who on earth thinks this is the right thing to do? Enough "professionals" do this that my biggest question is, who on earth is TRAINING people to do this?
But... is it murder, or is it something else? I posted the above photos, taken in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden about a week ago, in a gardening group on Facebook and it provoked quite a reaction. About 75% considered it "murder", about 20% considered it "pollarding" (without necessarily liking it), and about 5% liked the effect and actually approved of the practice.
Pollarding is an ancient horticultural practice of annually cutting back a tree or shrub's branches, forcing the production of long, rapidly-growing, whip-like branches. The cut ends eventually form large, knobby stumps. It was once done for primarily utilitarian reasons: production of livestock fodder or wood for fuel or other purposes. In the modern landscape it's a matter of style, and of personal taste. It's not a look I care for; I think the natural form of a crape myrtle is graceful and beautiful, and best left alone.
Lagerstroemia 'Lipan', never pruned. National Arboretum, July 2010
Crape myrtles require minimal pruning and provide year-round interest. In addition to their summer flowers, they have attractively contorted trunks and branches, ornamental bark, and good fall color. Whether you call it pollarding or crape murder, it turns a tough, low-maintenance landscape plant into something that requires regular maintenance. Lazy gardener that I am, the thought of creating unnecessary work for myself makes me shudder.
Lagerstroemia 'Zuni', National Arboretum, July 2010
Lagerstroemia 'Zuni', flowers
Crape myrtle fall color
The specimens in the Sculpture Garden are pollarded. It's clearly intentional, for a particular desired effect, and done annually by horticultural professionals who know what they're doing. I reserve "crape murder" for something else. When I see a large, beautiful, mature, and natural-looking specimen cut back to fat, ugly stumps of large branches for no apparent reason--what most of us would call "topping" on any other tree--that's murder.
This is murder. Washington, DC; May 2014
I suspect most people doing this wouldn't know the word "pollard" if it bit them on the ass. I have no idea why they're doing it, and I don't think they do either. Perhaps they simply see everybody else doing it and think it's the right thing to do, even "necessary" (which is most certainly is not!). They are then left untouched for several more years, but the damage has been done. This was a very uncommon practice in Washington, DC when I moved here 24 years ago, but in recent years I've been sad to see more and more beautiful old specimens suffer this fate.
Mature crape myrtles in Washington, DC
Pollarding is a matter of taste, and who am I to judge? (Well, I will, but in most cases silently.) I'll give you grudging permission to do it to your crape myrtles if (a) you know what the word "pollarding" means, (b) you can explain why you're doing it, and (c) you do it each and every year, without fail. But if you skip just one year, I'm calling the horticultural cops to report a murder.
Pollarding or murder? Tough call. Washington, DC; May 2014
So... what are your thoughts on pollarding crape myrtles? Is it ever acceptable, or is it always "crape murder"?
Recent articles on crape murder:
How to avoid hacking at your crape myrtle this spring (Adrian Higgins, Washington Post)
How to fix crape murder (Steve Bender, a.k.a. Grumpy Gardener)