How to grow Crab Apples
Crab Apples Growing Guide
This underrated fruit has it all, explains growing expert Anthony Bennett – eye-catching springtime blossom and beautiful autumn colour. Plus crab apples are edible and the heavy crop of fruits can be used in jellies and jams, or to create crab apple wine or gin.
How to grow Crab Apples
Not many of our crops can claim to combine truly outstanding visual appeal with their edible traits, but the humble crab apple manages just that. Often grown purely for its incredible springtime display, this neat little tree also forms petite apples that can be turned to a number of uses in the kitchen.
While the fresh fruits are perhaps too hard and bitter-tasting to enjoy as a snack, they are perfect for preserves – forming a delicious jelly that’s an ideal addition to cooked meats or a ploughman’s. They also make a refreshing homemade wine that is lip-smackingly moreish, or can be added to cider or infused to make crab apple gin.
So why else should grow-your-own enthusiasts dedicate their time to a crab apple? Well, if the April sprays of pink, red, or white flowering crab apple blossoms aren’t enough, then their glorious autumn tints certainly will be.
A small tree will yield up to 10kg of crab apple fruit and any spares will hang on through the winter to keep hungry birds fed. Try a specimen tree in a lawn and enjoy the very best of its good looks and fruity haul.
Preparing the ground for growing crab apples
Crab apple trees will arrive bare-rooted or grown in containers. Potted crab apples may be planted at any time of year, so long as soil conditions are suitable – not frozen or too wet.
Bare-root trees should be planted in autumn or early winter as soon as they are dormant. Nurseries will dispatch their stock when it’s time to plant, so don’t worry if you do not receive your tree immediately after ordering.
To plant a bare-root crab apple, dig a hole into your prepared ground that is big enough to accommodate the roots without them bending. Spread the shoots evenly and refill with the soil, lightly pressing down with your boot as you go.
Give trees a thorough watering to settle the earth. Make sure that the new soil level matches the soil mark on the stem. Any graft union should also be well above ground level.
Growing Crab Apples month-by-month
In a mild UK winter you can continue to plant trees. If they are lifted by frosts, firm them back into the ground with your boot.
While things in the garden are still relatively quiet, get to your nearest fruit specialist where crab apple trees are for sale, and choose a variety that will suit your space and shows good disease resistance - there are plenty of types of crab apple to choose from.
Another bare root planting window. Mulch existing trees with organic matter to give them an extra boost.
By mid-April many trees will be in their full springtime regalia. Relish this moment – it is one of nature's most glorious displays!
Keep recently planted specimens well watered in dry weather by irrigating copiously at two-week intervals. Complete any pruning.
Little attention is needed in summer, other than to keep young trees watered in dry spells. Cut away any suckers or water shoots.
As the weather hots up, just remember to keep young trees watered. Look ahead to when the tree will ripen and start thinking about how you can cook with crab apples and get the best from your harvests in autumn.
There’s not too much to be done at this time of year, so sit back and enjoy your blossoming tree in all its glory.
Order your trees now. For the best edible crabs, pick varieties that produce the largest fruits, such as 'John Downie'. If you have a tree already, keep your eyes peeled for fruit starting to ripen from the end of the month.
Prepare the ground for new crab trees by incorporating plenty of organic matter. Harvest the fruit from existing trees to use in preserves, crab apples are ready to make jelly at this time of year.
This is the best month for planting bare-root crab apples. Take care not to cramp the roots when setting the tree into its planting hole.
Aim to finish planting before the end of the year when the worst of the winter weather hits. Leave crab apples for the birds.
Caring for your Crab Apples plants + problems
Most crab apple trees will need some support while they establish themselves. Knock in a sturdy stake close to the tree trunk and attach it using a rubber tie. Make sure your sapling remains upright and won’t rock back and forth in the wind too much.
Immediately after planting, it is worth adding a 3-5cm layer of organic mulch. This will help to keep weeds down and adds a further boost of nutrients to the young crab apple tree in its critical early stages of growth.
Keep the mulch away from the central trunk. In future years, a mulch can be applied in mid-spring to top up nutrient levels and lock in soil moisture that has built up over the winter.
In the first year it is likely that crab apples will need watering to help them along. Only irrigate in dry weather and give a generous soaking every two weeks or so. Ample water applied less frequently encourages the roots to reach down further to find available moisture, thereby helping trees to cope with future dry periods.
It’s hard to say exactly how big crab apples will grow. But, usually trees are of a medium size, reaching around 4m-5m in height, check the variety you have to give a better indication of what to expect.
Pruning crab apple trees
Crab apples are the perfect tree for gardeners starting out with top fruit as they require very little pruning. As your tree establishes, it is likely that no pruning at all will be needed. Once mature, pruning is simply a question of cutting away any crossing, diseased or dying branches to keep the crown healthy.
Occasionally, the top may need to be opened out a little to let in more air and light. Complete your pruning on mild winter days, and always before June when many of the flowers for next year are initiated.
Watch out for suckers – long, straight shoots that emerge from the ground some distance from the trunk – and water shoots, which are straight growths emerging from the crown itself. Cut these right back to where they emerge or they will eventually detract from the overall shape and health of your tree. As trunks swell, slacken off tree ties to allow for the extra girth.
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How to harvest Crab Apples
Fruits will naturally ripen from October to early November when they will assume their full colour. To help tell if your crab apples are ripe, try picking one and slicing it in half - darkened seeds should mean they are ready to be harvested.
Harvest your crop as soon as it is ready to guarantee the best flavour, and process it immediately. Although you can eat crab apples off the tree, they’ll be tart, so it’s best to cook with them before eating. To prepare fruits for jelly or wine-making give them a thorough scrub to remove any dirt and the remains of dried blossom. Also remove the stalk.
Many varieties will hold their crabs well into the winter, proving a real boon for native birds and wildlife. If you can, it’s best to pick what you need and leave any remaining fruits in place for the birds and other wildlife. By setting some aside for our feathered friends you will be feeding up next year’s pest controllers.
Varieties of Crab Apples
Crab Apples varieties to try
The well-named ‘Jelly King’ yields masses of large, orange-pink fruits that are ideal for crab apple jelly making. The fruits hang on the tree well into the winter months, so it’s one of the best crab apple trees for wildlife if you can resist taking all of the fruit for yourself!
This variety forms a small tree with very attractive pale purple blossom and tinted leaves. The orange-red fruits can be eaten raw straight off the tree when ripe and it’s a good choice for city gardeners due to its pollution resistance.
It can be a challenge finding small crab apple tree varieties, but where space is at a premium, or you’re looking to keep your crab apple tree in a pot, this hardy Danish-bred ornamental variety is ideal for patio containers. Pot grown specimens will benefit from frost protection over winter.
Create an idyllic screen with this crab apple hedge plant that will explode with beautiful pale-pink flowers, and create a buzz with local pollinators who will be drawn to these irresistible crab apple blossoms.