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In appreciation of the crape myrtle

The ubiquitous tree gives summer landscapes some pop

The fluffy blossoms of the crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) give Sacramento summers plenty of landscape color. Some people aren’t fond of the blossom “snow,” however.

The fluffy blossoms of the crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) give Sacramento summers plenty of landscape color. Some people aren’t fond of the blossom “snow,” however. Kathy Morrison

How drab the height-of-summer landscape would be without crape myrtle trees.

One of my three crape myrtles is blooming its head off. The light pink blossoms weigh down the branches so much that I emerge with a crown of flowers when I walk underneath.  The purple-flowering tree in front and the violet-pink one in back will be showing their colors soon.

Two of these trees were here when we bought our house; I added the third crape myrtle to shade a window.

(Wait, isn't that spelled CREPE myrtle?)

Well, yes, both spellings are correct, but I see that the online Florida company that sells these trees exclusively calls itself The Crape Myrtle Company. So we'll go with that.

I had to laugh when I looked through their catalog: There's a miniature variety, blooming bright deep red, called the Sacramento. It grows to just 2 feet tall. That size would be easy to tuck under the standard variety, rather than the more commonly planted agapanthus.

I do enjoy these trees. They're not too tall, they provide great shade and color in summer, and their roots behave. In winter they pretty much disappear -- except for that pretty bark -- so what daylight we get is not blocked.

My childhood house had a hedge of classic hot-pink crape myrtles, grown as bushes. We played with the buds, squeezing them until they popped open.

But not everyone is a fan. Maybe the trees were not planted in the right location, spilling their blossoms all over the sidewalk or cars. Some varieties are susceptible to powdery mildew. Sometimes they attract aphids, which can mean sticky honeydew and sooty mold ruining the look of the plant.

But the worst problem with these trees is caused by humans: "crape murder." That's the severe pruning of the trees, supposedly to control the size and/or increase blooming. I particularly hate the pruning that, after a few years, leaves knobby "knuckles"on the tree, from which a "witch's broom" of weak branches sprouts.

I found an excellent description of this crime -- and how to remedy it -- on the Southern Living website here:

Now, I know crape myrtles are not natives. Blooming native trees of the same size include the desert willow; we may see more of those in landscapes as native plants gain wider acceptance.

But our hot summers would be less colorful without crape myrtles, and it always cheers me to see them in bloom. I don't even mind brushing all those pink blossoms out of my hair.

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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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