Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Apple tree, Dover, 1960
A crabapple tree produces fruit that are, generally, under 2 inches in diameter. The trees can serve as pollinators, feed wildlife, flavor cider, and can be used to make jelly. Illustration from "Handbook of Plant and Floral Ornament from Early Herbals," by Richard G. Hatton, Dover, 1960.

By Roberta Bailey

Who can resist the beauty of a crabapple tree in full bloom? Or the scent so strong that you stop what you are doing and go to the tree, inhaling deeply amid the buzz of bees? I certainly cannot. Many an otherwise bare yard will have a crabapple tree. On my farm I have a 400-yard-long fencerow with dozens of birdhouses, chokecherries, viburnum, buckthorn and hawthorn. My fantasy is to interplant it with flowering crabapple trees. Can you imagine the bloom, the scent, the snow-like petal fall and then the happy birds? Plus I get to pick the blood red fruit of certain varieties for jelly and cider. This is my solution to a yard already full of trees and to my inability to limit myself to only a few of the many beautiful crabapple trees available.

When is an apple really a crabapple? Generally a crabapple is any Malus species with fruit under 2 inches in diameter. The trees vary greatly in form and height, from wide spreading to vase shaped, from weeping and semi-weeping to rounded dwarfs. (‘Dolgo’ is a large spreading tree, while ‘Guinevere’ is an 8-foot rounded vase-shaped tree. The profuse bloom ranges in color from white to pink to orange and red and deep purplish red. Individual flowers can be simple or so fully double as to be mistaken for small roses in a bouquet. Fruit can range from dessert quality (such as the incredibly sweet and flavorful ‘Chestnut’ crab) to wildlife and ornamental uses.

Planting a crabapple is similar to planting any apple tree. Choose a site that meets as many of the optimal conditions as possible. Apples thrive in full sun (at least 6 to 8 hours per day). Ideally your site should have good air drainage and well-drained, deep soil. Good air flow reduces foliage diseases and frost damage. A late frost can nip flower buds. The deeper your soil the better. Avoid sites with bedrock close to the surface, as tree roots have little to anchor them and the soil dries out too quickly. Apple trees will tolerate all but very dry soils or standing water.

Soil should be rich in organic matter with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0. Add lime or aragonite to balance the soil pH. Heavy clay soils can be lightened by digging holes around the site and filling them with compost mixed with the topsoil. Organic matter helps the soil hold moisture and facilitates drainage. The mulching technique explained later in this article also adds organic matter.

Plant crabapple trees in early spring (late April or early May in Maine). Dig a hole at least twice as wide and a half foot deeper than the root system. It should be about 3 feet wide. Loosen the soil in the bottom of the hole and around the sides. Add 2 gallons of compost, a quart of rock phosphate, and 2 cups of the trace mineral-rich Azomite to the topsoil. Avoid manure or any high nitrogen source, as trees will grow too quickly and may suffer from winter damage. Remove any broken roots or branches before planting, and prune branches to establish a good structure or shape. (Pruning instructions often come with tree orders or can be obtained from Cooperative Extension.)

Place the tree in the hole. If it is bare-root, spread the roots in many directions. Slowly fill in around the roots, using the best soil in the bottom of the hole and tamping lightly to eliminate air pockets. The tree should be planted at the same depth as it was growing in the nursery or pot. After you have filled the hole, form the earth into a water-retaining berm around the tree and water thoroughly. You can also water as you fill in the hole, ensuring thorough watering. Give your tree l to 2 inches of water per week in its first year.

As 90 percent of a trees’ feeder roots are in the top 6 inches of the soil, sod and weeds pose tough competition for a young tree. Also, recent research shows that trees thrive on high levels of mineralization. A system of applying amendments then mulch can eliminate competition and promote mineralization. Recommended applications for initial plantings include 10 pounds each of Azomite and colloidal rock phosphate with lime or aragonite if the pH is low. Spread these amendments in a 6-foot diameter circle around the tree. Sprinkle a diluted mixture of water and 1 cup of sugar or molasses over the nutrients to promote microbial growth. Do not turn in these nutrients but cover them with a mulch of cardboard, newspaper or landscape fabric, then apply a 3- to -inch layer of bark mulch, wood chips, composted leaves, straw, grass clippings or hay. The mulch will kill the grass and encourage earthworms and essential mycorrhizal action while retaining moisture and moderating soil temperatures. These amendments should carry the tree through 3 or 4 years. Mulch and mineralization can help revive older apple or crabapple trees.

To feed a mulched tree in following years, pull back any remaining mulch, sprinkle compost, alfalfa meal and trace nutrients as needed, then replace the mulch. All feeding should be done in early spring to allow the tree time to harden off its new growth later in the season.

Choosing a crabapple tree starts with asking what you want or need. Is this tree ornamental; do you want to attract birds; would you like edible fruit? Do you have space considerations? Do you need a good pollinator for your orchard? Do you want to add zip to your cider or increase its tannin level? Crabapple jelly – how about a deep red jelly? Are you set on a certain shape of tree? Is fragrance important? Hundreds, if not thousands, of crabapple varieties exist. For an awe-inspiring look at the world of crabapples, read Father John Fiala’s classic, Flowering Crab­apples. The list below is a diverse sampling of some old classics and some newer introductions.

‘Dolgo’ – a very large (35 x 30') tree with 2" white flowers that bloom early. Excellent pollinator. Red fruit, good for red jelly, pickling, coloring cider. Extremely hardy.

‘Brandywine’ – rounded 20' tree, a late bloomer with red buds opening to extremely fragrant double pink blossoms. 1" yellow fruit.

‘Donald Wyman’ – wide spreading medium sized tree (15 x 30'), pink buds open to large white flowers, small red fruit holds all winter.

‘Royalty’ – Medium-sized, ornamental, with deep red leaves, single red flowers and red fruit. . Good for wildlife forage.

‘Guinevere’ – a rounded, 8- to 10-foot tree with red buds opening to long-lasting mauve and white blooms. Dark purplish-green foliage, and small, red persistent fruit favored by birds.

‘Sargent’ – a wide, hedge-like tree (l0 x 25') with long-blooming, white, fragrant flowers from pink buds. Dark reddish-purple fruit are loved by birds.

‘Chestnut’ – a tall, natural semi-weeper with white blossoms; sets 2", very sweet, tart fruit. Excellent in cider, sauce, or out of hand.

‘Red Jade’ – a weeper that can grow 12 feet high and 20 feet wide. Red buds open white. Sets green or red fruit that are popular with birds. Weeps to the ground. When the tree is older, you can actually set a table and chairs under it.

All apple and crabapple trees in New England are highly susceptible to the roundheaded appletree borer (Saperda candida). The borer lays its eggs in the shady, moist areas of the lower trunk on young trees. The larvae tunnel into the tree and eat and hollow it out, weakening and killing the tree. Borers are detectable by holes that they make in the lower trunk and by their rust-orange frass, which marks the holes or looks like small piles of sawdust at the base of trees. To prevent borer damage, staple hardware cloth 1- to 2-feet high around the trunk, keeping it snug at the top and buried 2 to 3 inches at the base. This screen can be left on year round, but loosen it as the tree grows. It also protects against mouse damage. If you have a borer in your tree, dig it out with a coat hanger wire or carve it out with a jack knife.

Bibliography

The Garden Primer, Barbara Damrosch, Workman Publishers, 1988.

The Apple Grower, Michael Phillips, Chelsea Green Publications, 1998.

The Backyard Orchardist, Stella Otto, Ottographics, 1993.

Fedco Trees Planting Guide, 2001. (Comes with Fedco Tree orders.)

Fedco Trees 2002 catalog, PO Box 520, Waterville ME 04903-0502.

St. Lawrence Nursery Planting Guide, 2001.

St. Lawrence Nursery catalog, www.stlawrencenurseries.com; 325 State Highway #345, Potsdam NY 13676.

Note: Aragonite is “a source of calcium that is very low in magnesium” and Azomite is a mineral that is “mined in Utah and contains over 67 minerals beneficial to plants and animals. Named for the A-to-Z of Minerals including Trace Elements.” – From the Fedco Trees 2002 Catalog.