A Tale of Two Crab Apple Trees

Crab apples are an absolutely wonderful fruit to grow, adding year-round value to any garden or orchard. In spring they’re clothed in bright blossom which feeds pollinating insects and also provides useful cross-pollination potential for a wide range of domestic apples. In the Autumn their fruits shine out in shades of gold, crimson or purple and whilst they might not be the tastiest straight off the tree – unless you’re a fan of incredibly tart, sour flavours – they do make a superb jelly, add a sharp note to a savoury apple sauce, and can of course be used to make verjuice.

In the past couple of months I’ve carried out two very different winter pruning jobs on two very different crab apple trees. Here’s how they went.

Crab Apple #1 – ‘Big Job’

The first, back in February, was for my parents. They have a mature crab apple at the end of their drive that was already in-situ when we all moved into the house back in the mid 1990s, so it could be anywhere from 30 to 50 years old by now. As you can see, it’s quite the specimen:

I’m pretty sure, based on my memory of the fruit from previous years, that the variety is ‘John Downie’. And if it’s not a J.D. then it’s something very similar. My Dad likes it because he enjoys making up the occasional batch of crab apple jelly. My Mum isn’t so keen because in Autumn the fruits drop all over the end of the drive and the pavement outside, and she always feels obliged to go out and sweep them up before they’re crushed and trampled up and down the street.

When I called round to take a look at the tree and see what I could do with it for them, it became clear that we had a few options:

  1. Remove the tree completely, solving my Mum’s mushy crab apple problem for good.
  2. Pollard the tree, reducing it to the main trunk and the stubs of a few side-branches. This would prevent it from fruiting for another three or four years, but would encourage a lot of vigorous, vertical re-growth, assuming there were enough viable dormant buds to re-grow.
  3. Cut back the ends of the branches and leave it to re-grow, a.k.a. the jobbing “tree surgeon”[1] special), which might put a check on the fruiting potential for the tree for a season or two whilst it vigorously re-grew its missing stems. This is what they’ve had done a few times already over the years, hence the tangled mess in the pic above.
  4. Thin out the canopy in order to improve the overall shape of the tree and reduce the fruit load for next year without provoking excessive re-growth and renewed crowding.

Mum was still leaning towards option #1 and Dad was more in favour of option #3, but once I’d explained that #1 would involve digging up half the drive to kill off the root system, and in the case of #3, taking the ends of the branches off would just lead to each one growing back three, four or five new stems; thickening the canopy even more and leaving the tree in a much worse mess in a year or two’s time, we agreed to give option 4 a go.

I set to with a will – actually, with a set of pruning saws and an invaluable telescopic lopper – and concentrated on thinning out the centre of the tree, taking out one or two duplicate vertical branch systems, and made sure that any crossing branches or stems that were likely to grow back into the middle were either removed completely or taken back to mature, fruiting wood.

Here’s a close-up of the centre of the tree, to give you an idea of quite how crowded it was in there before I started:

After three hours’ hard pruning, I think I managed to achieve a good result. Here’s the newly-thinned tree at the end of my labours:

As you can see, there’s a lot more space for light an air throughout the canopy, and I think the overall shape is rather pleasing. And this is the thinned-out canopy in a bit more detail (do bear in mind that what might look like crossing branches in the centre are actually growing outwards at an angle that fools the eye):

It’s still a very large tree, of course, and there’s likely to be some re-growth of water-shoots, particularly from around the cut ends of some of the larger branches. But I’ve promised to come back next year and re-prune where necessary and it ought to be a far more manageable job next time around. I’ve also promised to turn up in the autumn, give the tree a good shake, then pick up as much of the fallen fruit as I can in one go, saving my Mum a few sweeping jobs, and providing enough crab apples for my Dad – and me, and probably the entire neighbourhood – to cook up a few batches of crab apple jelly for the store cupboard. Yum.

Crab Apple #2 – ‘Little Job’

The second pruning job, which I carried out just this past week, was much quicker and easier to do. The crab apple in our own back garden – this one is definitely a ‘John Downie’ – was only planted four years ago and so hasn’t achieved anything like the same stature as its close relative over at my Mum and Dad’s, although it is growing nicely despite an early set-back[2] or two:

This time the pruning operation wasn’t about recovery and re-shaping, just a bit of problem solving and/or prevention. There was one immediate issue to deal with – a low branch that was blocking access to a path into the planting bed, you can see it shouting off to the right in the pic above – that was simple enough to resolve: I removed around three quarters of the branch, leaving the fruiting wood to blossom this year and maybe develop a few branching re-growth stems. I’ll keep an eye on that part of the tree to see how it re-grows by the end of the year and re-prune if necessary.

After that it was just a question of removing one or two branches in the centre of the tree that could cause problems further down the line if they continued to grow into a potentially congested area and take back anything that was heading in a direction that might result in crossing or clashing stems by the end of this season. A total of half a dozen cuts saw the job done and I’ve also taken out the metal tree support pole that was helping to rectify a disastrous lean caused by a bumper harvest back in 2018, as it’s not necessary any longer and can be re-used elsewhere.

How about you? Do you grow crab apples in your garden or orchard? Do you prune them regularly, occasionally, or never at all? Do let me know, via the comments.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The kill-quotes are quite deliberate here. It might be different in your neck of the woods, but where we live there are a number of local firms who claim to be “tree surgeons”, and certainly have all the right kit to prove it. But if they’re performing surgery on the trees they’re let loose on, then I’m a structural engineer, on the grounds that I once knocked down a wall with a sledgehammer…
2 I do have to keep a close watch on this one though, because our cat used the trunk as a scratching post for a while before I spotted what was happening, so the bark and cambium layer was quite badly lacerated at one point. I applied a tree guard and it seems to have healed up nicely since, so I don’t think it has suffered any long-term harm. But the tree guard will have to stay, in case the cat decides to return to her claw-honing ways.

6 comments

  1. Hi Darren, Yes, I grow crabs for the same reasons, beauty, cross pollination and bees. I do formative pruning while young and aim for open canopy and good crotch angles for a strong structure- get v strong winds here. I’m trying an approach where, with the crabs only, I do a little pruning every year to attempt to avoid big severe jobs. We shall see… I’m espalliering one to arch over a gate – I think it may end up the most charming one. Also, I am leaning towards summer pruning. I think better for disease- winter and spring so long, foggy and wet. Thoughts? I enjoy your sharings, thank you for the time and effort. I’m from alpine southern Australia- prob just a bit cooler than Cornwell.

    1. Hello Amanda –

      I’d say your approach sounds eminently sensible to me. Little and often is always going to be better than having to go in and rescue a tree that’s been cut back repeatedly over the years. That espalier arch does sound superb as well, I really hope it grows well for you. There’s a National Trust garden near us – Quarry Bank Mill – where they’re training up a couple of dozen crabs over a long, arched tunnel-frame to create a blossom walk. I think it’ll be two or three more years before they’re a good size, but I’ll try to post pics at some point.

      I have to admit, I’m not a practitioner of summer pruning myself. I’ve read a few articles and research papers – which one day I’m going to sit down and properly condense into something bloggable – that suggest it can actually be detrimental in various ways. But then the research was mostly concerned with orchard trees, rather than ornamental crabs, so mileage may vary.

      I have been pruning my allotment stepovers in winter rather than summer for the past couple of years though (year one, year two and the results so far have been pretty good. Another update on that to follow in another blog post as well. (So many blog posts to write, so little time…)

        1. Hi Marion – When you say ‘by accident’, do you mean it grew without you planting it, maybe from a discarded pip in an apple core? If so, it’s most likely a brand new variety. Apple trees growing on their own roots – rather than grafted to a rootstock – do tend to be more vigorous, so its no surprise it’s throwing out suckers. Good idea to keep them pruned, or you could end up with an apple thicket 🙂

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