How to care for crepe myrtle shrubs
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How to care for crepe myrtle shrubs
Two of the most popular street trees are the paper birch and crepe myrtle. Both are great for streetscapes but both have minor flaws that can make them unsuitable for many locations.
The issue with paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is that its attractive white-to-pink flowers occur late in the spring and then quickly disappear. What's more, while paper birch is a very tough tree, it can grow 10 to 15 feet tall. To grow it in small lots, you need to keep it in an open woodland and you will be able to do a lot of pruning, which helps to keep it compact.
A pair of Japanese maples (Acer palmatum 'Miyama Sweets') represent a completely different problem. While they offer more flowers at once than paper birch and are relatively compact, their shallow roots require a deep, heavily compacted, moisture-retentive soil that is lacking in many cities. It's unlikely you will be able to grow these maples as a street tree in most of the United States.
Photo by Claudio Ramirez
The dwarf crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) is becoming more popular among homeowners because it is small, has a good performance and is relatively easy to care for.
It also has a long, trailing, shapely and graceful trunk that is unmistakable. It's not quite as handsome as other commonly planted street trees such as the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Ogon') or cherry (Prunus serotina), but the short form does permit them to grow in the smaller lots that are popular in new subdivisions and the active-ageing centers where smaller trees are more difficult to plant and maintain.
The dwarf form also can be found as a smaller-leaved form called the standard crepe myrtle (L. sphaerocarpa) and as a compact form called the dwarf crepe myrtle (L. x bifida), neither of which is available in most nurseries.
There are two basic crepe myrtles:
Lagerstroemia indica, with green leaves turning yellow to red in fall, used in the United States as a street tree, small ornamentals and screens. It is small (10 to 14 inches) and very compact, not letting you put it in the larger lots in most subdivisions. It has small, white, fragrant flowers in the spring.
Lagerstroemia microcarpa, an older, European plant with blue-green leaves turning red in fall and grown mainly in warmer regions such as the Mediterranean and southwestern United States. It is slightly larger than indica (10 to 18 inches), less suitable for streetscapes and not recommended as a small tree for the active-ageing center. It can be a good choice as a large tree, landscape specimen and screen.
Both species grow well in full sun and can tolerate some partial shade. Both are very drought tolerant and need very little winter pruning. The European plant has a long, slender trunk. Both are adaptable to most soils and most climates and are easy to grow.
Here are some things to consider to help make them the best choice for you.
Buy an established plant in your area
Planting a crepe myrtle is easy if you have an established plant. You can buy a dwarf crepe myrtle from a high-quality landscaping company or even from the plant nursery at your local grocery store. However, it is sometimes possible to find crepe myrtles in the wild, but usually only in very shady locations and not planted in urban areas.
The size that suits you is a matter of personal preference and the location in which you intend to plant it. As a street tree, you want a very short, narrow tree. As a big tree, you may want a specimen or small tree that you plant on a patio or some other location where you can enjoy the tree for a long time.
These types of plants have been grown in tropical areas for many years and have been propagated using the techniques developed by tropical gardeners. For example, some local high-quality nurseries are growing plants in sterile containers filled with sterile potting mix. After the trees are in the containers, they are transplanted to larger pots and planted in the nursery. Once the trees mature, the plants are divided and transplanted to larger containers and then to their final home. This method of growing the plant is very similar to growing other trees, except that it also works with people who are not experts in tree growing.
For some local nurseries, trees are sold to homeowners and are not shipped out of state. However, it is best to plant your trees in the nursery so that you can buy exactly what you want and the plant health can be checked before you buy it.
One important thing to consider is the soil that the tree will have. Do not plant your tree in too-rich soil. Although it's possible to plant trees in places where you have muck, the tree is not as attractive in urban areas. You want a site that has a light topsoil, preferably with a rocky base. The mix can be soil and compost.
Prune very carefully
A significant portion of crepe myrtles' appeal is due to their short and tidy form. Pruning makes the tree look even smaller and more attractive. Pruning it too much will make it look