How to Grow Crabapple Trees
By: Julie Day
My crabapple tree seems never to have a dull moment. In early spring, just when I can’t take the grayness anymore, it pops out with deep magenta flower buds. As the buds open the flowers turn white, creating a multicolored rainbow as the foliage begins to sprout amid the blossoms. During the summer, the tree is lush and green and full of singing birds, with its dappled shade dancing on the walkway.
By late summer, the tiny crabapples come out in shades of red and orange, and the leaves begin to show their fall colors. And even when the leaves are gone and the last apples have fallen, the tree holds a nice shape for the winter – it’s my favorite for photographing snow and winter birds.
Crabapple trees offer almost everything you’d want in an ornamental tree:
- Gorgeous spring blooms, usually in April or May.
- Fall fruits in shades of orange, red, and purple.
- Colorful fall foliage.
- Moderate lawn-friendly size with good foliage.
- Variety of pleasing shapes that require very little pruning.
- Tough and adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions, including cold winters and heavy soil.
About Crabapple Trees
There are too many varieties of crabapple to count, with shapes ranging from upright to spreading to weeping. Some are grown for their edible fruit, but many ornamental varieties – known as flowering crabapples – have been developed more for landscape use. Flowers are generally in the white-pink-red range, with both green and red foliage.
Consider the following factors when choosing a crabapple tree:
- Fruit Persistence: Some varieties of crabapple keep their fruits well into the winter, while others drop their apples early and can make a mess. In general ornamental Asian varieties are cultivated for long-lasting, colorful fruits.
- Disease Resistance: Look for varieties that are resistant to apple scab, fireblight, mildew, and Japanese beetles.
- Size and Shape: Sizes range from 8 to 40 feet, and shapes vary widely as well.
Crabapple Growing Conditions
- Hardiness: Crabapples are hardy to zone 4.
- Light: Crabapples do best in full sun.
- Soil: Crabapples are adaptable; but rich, well-draining, slightly acidic soil is ideal.
- Water: Crabapples need regular water (especially the first year), but do better in dry rather than wet soil, so avoid wet or low lying planting sites.
Crabapple Planting and Growing Tips
- Planting Time: You can plant crabapples most any time the soil is workable. Bare-root trees need to be planted in early spring, but balled and burlapped or container grown trees can be planted in spring, summer, or fall.
- Planting Depth: Many flowering crabapples are grafted onto tougher rootstock, so it’s important to plant them at the same depth they were in the pot – no deeper – so that the roots will establish properly.
- Water: Make sure your crabapple gets 1” of water per week for the first year. Once the tree is established, it shouldn’t need supplemental irrigation except in extreme drought. Most crabapples will not die in drought, but they will focus on survival at the expense of next year’s flowers and fruits.
- Fertilizing: If planted in good soil, crabapples don’t usually need extra fertilizer. Feed only if you notice stunted growth, pale yellow leaves, or poor blooms or fruits.
- Pruning: Crabapples really don’t need pruning, other than an occasional shape-up to remove watersprouts or dead or rubbing branches. If your tree is susceptible to fungal diseases, you may want to prune to increase air circulation. Don’t prune after June, or next year’s flowers might be diminished.
- Disease: Apple scab is a common fungal disease that affects crabapple trees during humid summer weather. It starts with dark, velvety or oily-looking spots on the leaves, which eventually die and fall off. Fungicides can help some, but your best bet is to look for trees that are resistant to apple scab.
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