ISSUE 7  |  The Considered Garden

Gardening 101: Crape Myrtle

February 15, 2017 6:00 AM

BY Jeanne Rostaing

Crape Myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica: “Lilac of the South”

If you grew up in the South, like I did, you surely know and love crape myrtles. No matter how suffocating the summer heat in Memphis, we could count on the little row of crape myrtles planted in the hell strips along our narrow street to brighten our listless, air conditioner-hugging days.

As our tiny lawns turned brown and other plants lost their vigor these small trees burst into dazzling, long-lasting fuchsia blossoms. Our drab, aging neighborhood suddenly appeared uncharacteristically ready for a joyful celebration. All these years later, I am still grateful to the unknown person who thought to plant those lovely reliable Lagerstroemia indica trees.

crape-myrtle-Lagerstroemia-indica-forest-kim-starr

Above: Photograph by Forest and Kim Starr via Flickr.

It took me many years of living in New York City to realize that I was wrong in my belief that crape myrtles could not survive our northern winters.  In fact, since 1959, industrious hybridizers at the U.S. National Arboretum have been working to improve crape myrtles, making them more mildew- and disease-resistant as well as hardier.  The most successful cultivars developed in this pioneering program are the result of crosses of L. indica, the most common species in the U.S., with L. fauriei, a species with striking red-brown trunks introduced from Japan.

crape-myrtle-lagerstroemia-indica-akiyoshis-room-wikimedia

Above: Photograph by Akiyoshi’s Room via Flickr.

The nearly 30 hybrids released by the Arboretum are named to honor indigenous tribes i.e. ‘Lipan’, ‘Tonto’, ‘Sioux’, ‘Yuma’.  They have led to much improved and more versatile crape myrtles which now come in smaller forms, including dwarfs, that are more appropriate for our less expansive modern gardens.  They can survive a broader climate range, are resistant to mildew (formerly a big problem with L. indica), flower in a much wider selection of colors and beautify the winter landscape with multi colored peeling bark.

Cheat Sheet

  • Its extraordinarily long bloom time, approximately 60 to 120 days, makes crape myrtle a show-stopping specimen tree or shrub, especially since it has four-season interest with attractive seed heads, fall color, and distinctive bark.
  • Because minimal pruning is advised, select your crape myrtle carefully to be sure it will be a good size for your space.
  • The showy bark of crape myrtle is enhanced by an underplanting of an evergreen ground cover such as liriope, ajuga, euonymous, or juniper.

Keep It Alive

  • As long as its basic needs are met, crape myrtle, hardy in USDA growing zones 6 to 9, is remarkably easy to grow.  Plant it where it will get a minimum of six hours of full sun each day in soil that drains well.
  • Water new Lagerstroemia indica plants generously until they are established and able to tolerate drought conditions.
  • To encourage rounds of repeat blooms,  remove the spent flower heads.

 

SONY DSC

Above: A crape myrtle tree in flower in Australia. Photograph by Tatters via Flickr.

Crape myrtle is a native of Asia, where it was favored by the Tang dynasty in China more than 1000 years ago. It was known there as the “Monkey Tree” because its trunk was too smooth for monkeys to climb. In the US crape myrtle has been around since Revolutionary times. In fact records at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, show that Lagerstroemia indica seeds arrived there in the late 1700s.

Lagerstroemia-indica-Damyang-crape-myrtle-dalgial-flickr

Above: Photograph by Dalgial via Wikimedia Commons.

It is interesting to note, however, that after more than 200 years of growing this plant here, there is still a raging controversy about the correct way to prune it. Many gardeners, probably trying to reduce the height of the plant, commit what is called “crape murder” by lopping off the tops of the main vertical branches.  This effectively destroys the graceful shape of the tree and is still frequently seen both in the south and elsewhere.

white-crape-myrtle-dinesh-valke-flickr

Above: Photograph by Dinesh Valke via Flickr.

According to Wayken Shaw, a gardener at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in charge of the Lily Pool area which contains a number of well established crape myrtles, this type of pruning is known as “pollarding” and has been around for centuries.  He says the Lagerstroemia indicas at BBG were allowed to grow in their natural shape over the years. He advises gardeners to use a very light touch in cutting back these plants. “Managing them, at this point,” says Shaw, “is about thinning them out periodically to better showcase their beautiful form and exfoliating bark.”  Since crape myrtles bloom on the current season’s growth, Shaw says he prunes in late winter or early spring and rarely needs to perform any major structural cutting.

For more of our favorite flowering trees, see:

 

ISSUE 7  |  The Considered Garden

Hardscaping 101: Fruit Cages

February 15, 2017 4:00 AM

BY Clare Coulson

If you’ve ever tried to grow soft fruits out in the open then you’ll know that birds of all shapes and sizes love delicious ripe berries just as much as we do. And they can strip plants bare with mechanical precision—normally on the very morning that you’ve decided to harvest your crop. So a fruit cage is a must if you want to grow soft fruits on any kind of scale. Read on:

peak-roof-decorative-steel-fruit-cage-harrod-horticultural

Above: A Peak Roof Decorative Steel Fruit Cage is £700 from Harrod Horticultural. If you want to go bespoke, the sky is the limit with these structures.

What is a fruit cage?

A fruit cage is a rigid structure that’s shrouded in bird proof netting. But they can be about more than just protecting your fruit. The real beauty of fruit cages, says garden designer, Frederic Whyte, is that they can be a fantastic piece of garden architecture too—even when they’re not in use in the winter. Designer Whyte has just installed square steel fruit cages into a walled garden project in Suffolk, England; he asked local firm, Harrod Horticultural to powder coat them in a dark grey to soften the effect.

oak-fruit-cage-sellick-saxton

Above: “A handmade pair of fruit cages, made out of seasoned oak, crafted in our Dorset workshop,” says Sellick & Saxton. For more information and prices, see Sellick & Saxton.

Some designers produce fabulous wooden cages for projects, including bespoke oak versions with stunning peak roofs with carved pineapple finials and decorative lead flashing. But you don’t need to go haute—there are cages out there for every budget.

What are the best materials for a fruit cage?

Off-the-shelf cages tend to be made from aluminum, powder coated steel or, for a more rustic look, timber—all of which are usually sold in kits that are easy to assemble yourself at home if you have basic DIY skills. In the UK, Harrod Horticultural, which sells all of the above (a 2-meter square steel cage is £299, a 3.6-meter square timber one is £399), will also make different shapes and finishes to order if you have a particular size or design in mind.

harrod-horticultural-fruit-cage

Above: A Slot & Lock Aluminium Strawberry Cage “will be the cause of many aborted strawberry-thieving missions by frustrated birds,” notes Harrod Horticultural, which sells the fruit cage for £39.

Can I make a DIY fruit cage?

Ready made kits are ideal if you don’t have much time but the basic structure of a fruit cage is also very easy to make using any wooden poles—and will cost a fraction of the price. For stability, poles will need to be sunk 18 inches into the ground so an 8-foot pole would give you a 6-foot-, 6-inch-high fruit cage. The most complex part—and this isn’t really that tricky—is building a basic ledge and brace door. And ensuring that your nets cover every square inch of the structure. If there’s a gap, some clever creature is going to find it.

roman-fruit-cage-agriframes

Above: A Roman Fruit Cage in traditional gloss black is made of galvanized steel and at its peak is 10 feet high; £713 at Agriframes.

What is the best kind of netting for a fruit cage?

You can use a variety of netting depending on the wildlife around your garden and what you want to keep out—there is specific netting for birds, rabbits, deer and even butterflies. To conserve the roof netting (which can be damaged by snowfall over winter), remove at the end of each growing season.

storm-proof-crop-cage-my-pots-and-planters

Above: A large Storm Proof Crop Cage is $349 from My Pots and Planters.

What size fruit cage should I choose?

Fruit cages come in all shapes and sizes from low cages for strawberries and smaller bushes to vast walk-in cages that will protect fruits grown on a big scale so you need to consider not only the amount of space you have to dedicate to growing but also how much you actually want to grow. A walk-in fruit cage is arguably easier to work in too.

small-portable-crop-cage

Above: A small, portable Crop Cage has zippered doors; $99.95 from Gardener’s.

How long will a fruit cage last?

Metal frames should last for decades, even if your netting needs to replaced over time but timber frames will, of course, rot eventually—but it’s easy to replace any damaged or weathered parts.

fruit-cage-mushroom-cap-william-james

Above: Fruit Cage Mushroom Caps (£1.40 apiece) and other replacement parts and accessories are available at William James & Co.

What else do I need to know about fruit cages?

Prepare the ground before you install the structure; you will have more room to maneuver if you want to rototill or dig over the ground. Ideally to prepare for your plants, incorporate lots of manure and then cover the whole area with a ground cover sheet – you can then plant directly into it. Taller bushes like raspberries will also need supporting wires so plan these before you do ground preparation.

For more ideas to protect edibles from pests, see:

ISSUE 7  |  The Considered Garden

Outbuilding of the Week: A Sardinian Guest House in the Trees

February 15, 2017 2:00 AM

BY Meredith Swinehart

The owners of an extensive estate in Sardinia—a Mediterranean island off of mainland Italy—wanted to add a detached guest suite to their property and eyed a surrounding oak forest as the right spot. But they treasured the oak grove and wanted to limit their impact on it, so they challenged Officina29 Architetti with designing a simple unit that wouldn’t require felling a single tree. The architects delivered, producing a suspended, orthogonal building that required neither eliminating oaks nor covering the sloping forest floor.

Photography by João Morgado, courtesy of Officina29 Architetti.

modern-box-house-with-stone-walkway-in-sardinia

Above: An existing stone stairway meanders up to the new outbuilding. According to the firm, the design challenge for this project was to “establish a dialogue between the new volume and its semi-natural forest surrounding.”

modern-house-in-forest-trees-sardinia

Above: To the side of the guest volume is a new covered dining patio.

modern-glazing-window-sardinia-house-in-forest

Above: The architects used full-height glazing so occupants can experience the oak forest from inside the building. Looking from the outside during daylight, the windows reflect back the oak trees.

modern-stucco-house-in-sardinia-forest-with-deck

Above: Inside the building is one large room designed for maximum flexibility; it’s currently configured as a game room (note the pool table), but with its central bathroom, a hidden kitchenette, and a fold-out Murphy bed, the unit quickly converts into a guest suite.

modern-house-in-forest-with-deck-landscape

Above: The guest house is somewhat diminutive in scale, note the architects, in part to amplify the proportions of the surrounding oaks (and in part to fit without damaging them).

deck-walkway-path-to-modern-house-in-forest-sardinia

Above: A multi-tiered wooden walkway—also on risers so as not to disturb the forest floor—connects the guest volume with the main house.

deck-walkway-path-through-forest-in-sardinia

Above: Though the pathway serves a practical purpose, it’s also intended to be a “space” in its own right—to rest and reflect in the forest.

detail-of-deck-walkway-path-landscape-in-sardinia

Above: The design team preserved as much of the natural undergrowth as possible and brought in additional low-maintenance, shade-tolerant plants.

modern-white-stucco-house-in-sardinia-modern-landscape

Above: The guest house stands on reinforced concrete pillars. A border of warm-hued strip lighting magnifies the perceived effect of the building floating above the forest floor.

small-shrub-with-blue-berries-in-sardinia

Above: The designers used garden stakes throughout the landscape to identify the native vegetation. Here, the Mediterranean evergreen shrub Viburnum tinus, commonly found in oak forests.

modern-house-twilight-sardinia-rock-stairway

Above: Carefully positioned landscape uplighting illuminates the oak trees at night.

plan-of-modern-box-houses-in-forest-in-sardinia

Above: A computer drawing shows the relationship among the guest building (in dark gray), the covered patio (in light gray), and the main house (in white).

See all of Gardenista’s posts set in Italy, including: