The crabapple tree is often unfairly maligned. An attractive addition to any garden or fruit tree collection, its buds tend to be darker than the flowers, giving the tree an attractive, multi-colored appearance as the flowers open. The ornamental attraction doesn’t end with the flowers. The foliage of the plant, green in spring, slowly changes during late summer and early fall maturing into eye-catching shades of red, bronze, yellow and even dark purple.
Most varieties of crabapple are edible. They are also ornamentally attractive, forming in shades of green, yellow, red and orange. However, not every variety bears fruit. Some simply produce masses of colorful flowers throughout the growing season.
Attractive and useful, these specimens are popular for both their fruit and ornamental interest.
An attractive specimen, the crabapple tree is also pleasingly easy to grow. In fact, most varieties share the same growing needs as any other type of apple tree. This guide will take you through everything you need to know about adding a crabapple tree to your garden.
What Makes a Crabapple Tree Different from an Apple Tree?
Before we start to look at how to grow a crabapple, we must first learn how to tell it apart from any other type of apple tree.
Any apple tree that produces fruit which measures less than 2 inches in diameter is classed as a crabapple. When compared to apples the fruit, often described as a miniature apple, can look small or underdeveloped. Because of this they can taste sour. However, today, many cultivars produce tart, sharp fruit which has a sweet and sour flavor blend. The versatile fruit can be turned into jellies and jams with a little sweetener. If you live in an area that enjoys hot weather and rainy summers the fruit can have an excellent flavor.
Common Crabapple Tree Varieties
There are a number of different cultivars commercially available. These can be purchased from garden stores or plant nurseries. When selecting a plant, always try to choose one that suits your growing conditions. You should also select as healthy a specimen as possible. This helps to make planting and ongoing care a lot easier.
One of the most common cultivars is Dologo. This is a resilient variety that reaches up to 35 ft in height. Resistant to diseases such as scab and fire blight, Dologo is a good choice for large spaces and gardens. Its fruit can be used in jellies and jams or simply grown for ornamental purposes. In the spring the plant produces masses of white flowers, while in the fall the green foliage fades to yellow.
A versatile plant, cultivars come in a range of shapes and colors.
Centennial Crabapple is a dwarf cultivar, ideal for large planters and containers. Usually reaching about 8 ft. in height, if it is grown on rootstock the plant can reach upto 15 ft. Centennial produces edible apples that can be used for jellies or apple butters. Another compact specimen is the attractive Malus Pink Glow. It’s brilliant white flowers give way to pink-red fruit which is best used in jams and jellies.
Red Sentinel is a reliable specimen which produces pale white flowers. A resilient plant with a strong upright habit it produces masses of deep red fruit.
Whitney Flowering Crab is a good choice if you want a smaller specimen. Reaching about 16 ft in height, white and pink flowers cover its branches during the summer months, drawing scores of birds and pollinators to the garden. As flowers fade surprisingly sweet apples start to form. These are ideal for canning, pickling or simply eating.
Chestnut Crabapple thrives in colder, northern climates. Another reliable cultivar, it produces lots of colorful foliage, drawing bees and birds to the garden. The fruit is nutty with a sweet flavor which is suitable for baking.
An attractive specimen, Pink Spires Flowering Crabapple reaches heights of 15 ft. In the fall the once green foliage turns eye-catching shades of red, orange and yellow. Pink Spires is best planted as an ornamental specimen. Its fruit is often dry and bitter and not suitable for consumption.
For a continual show of color, why not try planting a couple of different varieties? Planting an early flowering, mid season flowering and a late flowering specimen provides color, fruit and interest throughout the year.
How to Plant a Crabapple Tree
The crabapple prefers a full sun position. The more light the specimens receive the better they flower and grow.
Plant your chosen specimen in well draining soil. These plants are prone to developing root rot. Work in lots of compost or well aged manure to lighten heavy soils before planting. These amendments can also be used to enrich the soil.
Amendments are best worked in during the summer months for a fall or winter planting. This gives the soil time to settle. A resilient specimen, they do best in a neutral soil. Use a soil test kit to check the pH levels of the soil and make the necessary amendments before planting.
Don’t plant too close to permanent structures such as buildings or power cables.
When selecting your site take into account the final height of your plant. Don’t plant too close to structures that the roots may damage. You should also avoid planting too closely to larger structures with deep foundations that may stunt growth and root development.
If you grow other fruit trees, particularly apples, plant the crabapple in close proximity. Crabapples, when in flower are not only attractive ornamental plants they also attract masses of pollinators. Planting close to other fruit trees draws pollinators to your garden improving your entire fruit yield.
How to Plant a Crabapple Tree
Bare-root saplings are best planted in the fall or early spring. The soil should be workable. Container grown specimens can be planted at any time of year, but do best if planted in the fall or early spring.
To plant, dig a hole roughly 2 ft wide and at least 1 ft deep. Work a layer of organic matter such as compost into the base of the hole if you haven’t already amended the soil.
Gently spread the roots out and place in the planting hole. The top of the root system should sit level with the soil surface. You may need to add or remove soil before you are happy with the level of the plant.
When you are happy with the position of the plant, begin to backfill the hole with a combination of excavated soil and organic matter. When the hole is about half full, use a garden hose to fill it with water. Allow the water to completely drain away, this removes any air pockets. Once the water has fully drained away, continue filling the hole.
After planting remember to install some form of support such as a rigid stake. The Dalen Tree Stake Kit is ideal for young saplings. It not only helps to promote a straight growth habit but also protects saplings from wind damage.
Water the soil well and apply a balanced, granular fertilizer. Spread the fertilizer evenly around the base of the sapling. Finally, apply a 2 to 3 inch thick layer of organic mulch such as bark chippings or well-rotted compost.
If you are planting a dwarf or compact cultivar in a planter or as part of a container garden, plant as described above. Your chosen container should have drainage holes in the bottom and be filled with fresh, good quality potting soil.
How to Care for a Crabapple Tree
Once established the crabapple is a pleasingly low maintenance specimen. Selecting a disease resistant variety helps to reduce ongoing care and maintenance even further.
Once established these plants require little ongoing maintenance in order to thrive.
When to Water
For the first year after planting you must regularly water the soil around the plant. Aim to keep the soil evenly moist. A layer of mulch, 2 to 4 inches thick, helps the soil to retain moisture.
Once established, from year two onwards, these specimens are pleasingly drought resistant. Despite their drought tolerance, these plants grow best if they receive a regular dose of water. Water the soil evenly around the plant if you get less than one inch of rain a week during the spring and summer months.
How to Fertilize
There is no need to fertilize in the first year after planting. Instead, during the first spring, apply a 2 inch thick layer of organic mulch. As the mulch breaks down it provides the plant with lots of nutrients, helping to bolster healthy growth.
Alternatively, you can apply a light dose of balanced, slow release fertilizer. Spread this evenly around the base of the plant, aiming to cover as much of the soil above the root system as possible. This is best applied during the fall or winter months.
Be careful not to overfeed your crabapple. This can cause unhealthy amounts of leaf growth, often at the expense of flower and fruit production. Over feeding can also make the plant more prone to diseases like fire blight.
Over fertilizing can promote leaf growth at the expense of flower production.
How to Prune
A low maintenance specimen, the crabapple tree requires little regular pruning. Simply remove any dead, damaged or diseased twigs and branches each spring. Should you need to further prune the plant, this is best done in late winter or early spring, when the plant is dormant. Pruning later in the year can reduce the number of flowers and fruit that the plant produces.
Suckers, emerging from the plant’s rootstock, should be pruned away as soon as possible. Swift removal prevents the suckers from developing into new trunks.
Water sprouts, small shoots that form at angles between the main branches, rarely fruit or flower. Instead, they crowd the plant, reducing air flow, blocking out light and increasing the risk of disease. These should also be swiftly removed.
After removing dead or damaged branches, suckers and water sprouts any further pruning is minimal and, usually for aesthetic purposes. You can cut away branches to maintain or form a pleasing shape. Branches can also be pruned away to keep plants healthy and prevent overcrowding. Larger specimens may require the use of a pole saw to keep their growth in order.
Common Crabapple Diseases and Problems
Plating correctly in a favorable position helps to reduce the chances of disease. Many hybrid varieties are also disease resistant. Varieties with darker foliage can be more prone to disease and pest infestations than lighter cultivars.
Apple scab, caused by the Venturia inaequalis fungi, is common on most apple tree varieties, particularly in the Midwest region. Thriving in humid conditions, most healthy specimens can withstand apple scab for a number of years, suffering only minimal leaf drop.
Pruning away overcrowded branches and keeping the tree and surrounding area clear and tidy can help to prevent apple scab. The disease can also be treated with a fungicide, applied in the spring as leaves emerge. If apple scab is a major problem, try planting disease resistant varieties such as Adams, Silver Moon, Jewelberry, Weeping Candy Apple and White Cascade.
Fire Blight is a far more severe disease. Causing flowers to blacken and fall and twig or branch ends to wilt or curl, fireblight can give the plant the appearance of being scorched by fire. In the worst case scenario this nasty disease can even kill the tree.
Caused by the Erwinia amylovora bacteria, fireblight is spread by water splashing onto plants and insects. In modest cases, affected branches can be pruned away. If caught early enough this can prevent fire blight from spreading throughout the tree. Remember to disinfect your tools after use. Severe cases can be treated with a bactericide or copper based spray. Finally, you can also plant fire blight resistant cultivars such as Sentinel, Red Baron, Indian Summer, Jewelberry and Dolgo.
Regularly check the branches and foliage for signs of infestation or disease.
Dealing with Pests and Infestations
Regularly inspect the foliage of the tree for signs of infestation. Aphids are a common problem. These common pests can be removed with an application of insecticidal soap. Natural aphid predators such as lady bugs can also help to keep aphid infestations away.
Japanese beetles can destroy the foliage of plants, giving it a chewed up, lacy appearance. Insecticides or traps can be used to control infestations. Mites can also target the plants, but are only really a problem if the infestation is particularly large. In this case an insecticide can be used.
Finally, caterpillars, leafminers and leafrollers can also target the foliage of the tree. Most infestations are kept in check by natural predators. To encourage more natural predators and beneficial insects why not create your own bug hotel?
How to Propagate a Crabapple Tree
You can propagate a new crabapple tree either from seeds or by taking softwood cuttings.
Growing from Seed
Collect seeds from ripe fruit, also known as pips. Wash the pips, cleaning away any remaining fruit and flesh before drying with a paper towel. Place the dried seeds in a storage bag filled with peat moss. Put the bag in the bottom of the refrigerator for 3 months. Known as stratification this process replicates the cold winter weather that seeds would naturally be exposed to. Check the seeds occasionally for signs of mold, removing infected or sprouting seeds. Plant any seeds that are sprouting.
Following stratification plant the seeds in containers filled with a fresh potting soil or an even mix or perlite, potting soil and peat moss. Cover the seeds with a fine layer of the potting mix and water. Place the pots in a light position, such as in a greenhouse. Keep the soil evenly moist.
Regularly check the pots for signs of germination. Following germination, when the seedlings are 12 to 18 inches tall, harden them off before transplanting outside.
While growing from seed is pleasingly easy, most crabapple tree cultivars are hybrids. This means that the new tree is unlikely to resemble the parent plant. If you want to grow a new crabapple tree that is true to type you will have to propagate a new specimen by taking cuttings.
How to Propagate From Cuttings
Cuttings should be taken from this year’s growth, known as softwood. The chosen branch should be pliable and possibly still slightly green. It should also be healthy. Use a sharp pair of garden scissors or pruning shears to cut away an 8 to 12 inch section. Make the cutting at a slight angle.
Before planting, prepare the cutting by removing all but the top set of leaves from the cutting. Next, wound or cut the bottom end of the cutting. You are aiming to remove all the outer bark from the bottom 3 inches of the stem. Wounding the cutting helps to stimulate root growth. To speed the process up you can cover the wounded area in a rooting hormone, but this is not necessary.
Plant the cuttings in trays or pots filled with coarse, damp sand. Cover with plastic, such as a plastic bag or place in a large propagator. The Early Grow Propagator comes with height extenders making it ideal for protecting and propagating taller cuttings.
Put the cuttings in a sunny position, such as on a windowsill. Keep the sand moist until roots form. This usually takes about 4 weeks. To check for root formation gently pull the cutting. If you feel resistance it is a sign that roots are forming. New growth may also emerge.
Once roots have formed, transplant the cutting into a new container filled with good quality potting soil. When the cuttings reach about 12 inches in height, slowly harden them off before transplanting outside. As the cuttings develop you can also lightly prune the emerging foliage and stems to encourage branching.
Often unfairly maligned, the crabapple tree is an attractive addition to any garden.
The crabapple tree is an attractive, low maintenance addition to the garden. In addition to long lasting ornamental interest, they can attract scores of pollinators to the garden, helping to boost the yield of other fruit trees and fruiting plants. While crabapples are edible, if you choose to leave them on the plant birds and squirrels, amongst other creatures, will happily feed on them.
Sometimes called the jewel of the landscape the crabapple tree brings year round interest to the garden. Why not add one to your garden today?
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.