Crab apples - year round interest and food for all
We’re now into November and it’s getting to tree planting season. In my view, trees are some of the most splendid living things on our planet. It’s no accident that we have sayings like from tiny seeds great oaks are born. They lock up carbon, provide innumerable nooks and crannies for wildlife to thrive, cast shade in the summer, stabilise the soil and can even feed us too.
Many of us have small gardens though, and a large tree can take years, if not decades, to establish. So before you stop reading and think “I can’t grow a tree”, I’d encourage you to think about smaller varieties for the garden, and in particular one of the best “value” for money, time and effort - the crab apple.
Crab apple trees provide year round interest. They have gorgeous blooms of blossom in spring, followed by leaves and fruit well into autumn. There are three main colours of crab apple fruits produced - yellow, orange and red. Some of them are so vivid they can almost look plastic in the wintery pale light. The fruit tend to be either small in little groups (better for birds), or larger and easier to pick for cooking (better for humans).
They are also “self-fertile”. This means you don’t need to buy more than one for the tree to be pollinated and fruit to be produced. Many varieties also help out with pollination of nearby apple trees. Think of them as being like your friend who is always first to volunteer to help everyone out.
How to buy a tree
Trees can be brought in containers, or in bare roots. Bare root plants tend to be cheaper, but they do need to be planted rapidly. If you don’t have space or time to plant immediately, you can use a technique called “heeling in” which is, in effect, plonking it at a 45 degree angle in some soil until you have time to think about where you want to put it.
How to plant a tree
Mature trees don’t just jump up from the ground and replant themselves in the wild. Grown from seed in the wild, the treelet establishes its root and plugs into the world wide web of tree networks deep underground.
When we transplant a nursery-grown tree to plant it in our gardens, we have to help the tree do all that re-connection with the soil. The roots need to reach out and establish themselves, bringing vital nutrients to the tree.
There is a lot of advice about whether to dig a square or round hole. To be perfectly frank, I don’t think it matters so long as it is big and deep enough. Regardless of which shape you opt for, ensure the rootstock (that’s the nobbly bit at the bottom of the tree trunk) is above the soil and mulch level. Otherwise you will get branches sprouting from below the rootstock which could be a completely different variety of tree altogether. Then mulch round your new tree, taking care to not pile it right up to the stem.
How to look after a tree
The most important thing with trees is to water them well while they are being established. This doesn’t just mean on the day of planting, but for the following two years while they re-establish their root system. A tree is for life, not just a Sunday afternoon! After the first couple of years, the roots will be deep and well enough established to not require watering.
What crab apple to chose
In addition to the cultivated varieties like “Aros” – best for small gardens - “Red sentinel” - best for vivid fruits that last til Christmas and “Golden Hornet” - best for honey-flavoured jellies, can I encourage you to look at the wild native crab apple (Malus sylvestris)?. As well as being cheaper to buy, is utterly beautiful to behold, provides food for all and can also be used for hedging. It’s a veritable friend for all, so make space in your garden for one today.
Still have questions?
Contact me for advice on what tree would suit your garden, tree sourcing, and advice on maintenance and care. I'd love to help increase our tree population!
A version of this article first appeared in the Basingstoke Observer . All rights reserved