Gardens - Fruit & Vegetable Gardening

Growing crabapples

Trevor Cole
Photography by
Tracy Cox

Crabapples - some new thoughts on an old Canadian favourite

In my travels across Canada, I've noticed that there are more crabapples planted than any other single species of tree. No wonder. Starting with bursts of white, pink or red blooms in spring, followed by bright green (and in some cases red) foliage in summer, then green, red or yellow fruit in fall, crabapples are three-season performers. And with the wide variety of shapes, sizes and hardiness levels available, there's a crab that's tailor-made for just about every Canadian garden.

Many species were brought over by early settlers and cross-bred with native crabs to create cultivars with improved characteristics, such as hardiness and a greater range of flower and fruit colours. Unfortunately, many of the older varieties are very disease-prone and, surprisingly, are still frequently offered for sale.

While most people plant crabs for their early spring show, the shape, size and colour of the fruit and the colour of the leaves should also be taken into account. Smaller fruit will be easier for birds to eat - they'll often descend in clouds to let you know it's ripe-but if you're keen to use the fruit for pickling or for making jellies, bigger ones are easier to handle. And large fruit provide more winter interest. Choose varieties with bright red or yellow fruits, rather than those with green or dull red ones.

The new foliage of many crabs is tinged with a coppery tone that fades as the leaves unfurl; some varieties have leaves that are either tinged with red or are a reddish purple at maturity. Red-leafed trees add visual interest to the landscape during summer but should be used sparingly-too much of a good thing can look overwhelming.

When planning what to plant and where it will go, keep in mind that crabs need full sun. I once planted one in a location that was shaded by the house for part of the day. Although the tree grew well, it never produced fruit on branches that were in shadow. Also take note of the mature size of trees: the cute sapling you have your eye on could be slated to become a monster in 20 years, a monster you may not have ample room for.

To plant, dig a hole twice the size of the container it comes in; don't enrich the soil you use to backfill the hole unless it's almost pure sand (in which case, add compost or composted manure). You want the roots to grow into the surrounding soil for good anchorage, not stay in a carefully prepared, rich planting pocket. And remember: more trees are killed by being planted too deeply than by any other cause. Look for a change in colour on the bark (below-ground bark will be darker) that indicates how deeply it was planted at the nursery - don't assume the level in the container was correct - and adjust the planting depth to match. Firm the soil to remove air pockets, leaving a slight depression around the trunk to direct water down to the root zone. You can plant crabs in spring or early fall, but if winters are harsh in your area, spring is the better option.


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