Crabapple trees (Malus spp.) are known for their brilliant spring display of white or pink blossoms, but they offer something to the garden year-round. The trees have glossy leaves during the summer that turn yellow in the fall. As crabapple trees mature, they develop interesting mottled bark for winter interest.
Crabapples are small trees, generally growing 15 to 20 feet, making them an ideal tree for small residential lot. They can be planted under power lines and in a mixed bed. Cold-hardy in USDA plant hardiness zone 4 through 8, crabapple trees have strong wood and rarely suffer from branch breakage. For other landscaping trees, see this article on fast growing trees.
Crabapples are related to apples. The main distinguishing difference between the two is that crabapple trees produce apples that are less than 2 inches in diameter. These apples are edible, albeit tart. Use them for juice or jelly. If you’re not interested in growing crabapples for their fruit, choose a variety with small, persistent fruit that needs less maintenance. The birds will appreciate the apples, but you won’t have to spend time cleaning them up from the ground.
Growing Crabapple Trees
Like apple trees, crabapple trees are typically grafted onto rootstock, although they may occasionally be sold as seedlings. Dwarf varieties standing less than 15 feet are available. When planting crabapples, choose a sunny location with loamy clay or loamy sand soil. A location with an eastern or northern exposure is better than a southern or western exposure, which may cause the tree to bud too early in the spring. A late spring cold snap can destroy the blooms on these trees. The soil pH should be between 6.0 and 8.0. Amend acidic soils with lime several months prior to planting.
Dig a hole almost as deep and twice as wide as the root ball. Set the tree on its side and press on the pot to release the tree. Gently slide the tree out of the pot. Set the tree in the hole so it sits two to three inches higher than the surrounding soil. If you’re planting a grafted tree, make sure the graft – which is identified as a small bump or curve at the base of the tree – sits 2 inches above the soil. Fill the dirt in halfway and add two gallons of water to the hole. Fill the hole completely, tamping down firmly with your foot to remove any air pockets. Grade the soil slightly so it slopes away from the tree and water it again.
Established crabapple trees are fairly drought tolerant once established, but water a newly planted crabapple at least once each week during the first summer. Fertilize the tree the following spring with ½ cup 10-10-10 spread in a 3 foot circle around the base of the tree. Follow the same protocol each spring thereafter.
Prune your crabapple tree in late winter or immediately after flowering to remove any water sprouts, which are branches that grow vertically. You should also remove any sprouts that grow around the base of the tree, as well as any dead or diseased branches, or branches that rub against each other.
Crabapple Tree Pests and Diseases
Like apple trees, crabapples are subject to several diseases, including fire blight, rust, scab and powdery mildew. Check with a county extension office to see which diseases are common in your area and select a disease resistant variety.
Avoid planting crabapple trees in a heavily fertilized and watered lawn. These growing conditions encourage soft, leafy growth, which makes the tree more susceptible to disease. Plant crabapple trees in a mulched bed, when possible, and use drip irrigation instead.
Aphids can sometimes be a problem in spring. You may notice a sticky substance on the leaves or ground, which is honeydew. The honeydew attracts black sooty mold. In most cases, predatory insects will usually dispatch the aphids, although you can spray the tree with a steady stream of water or insecticidal oil.
Crabapple Tree Varieties
When choosing a crabapple tree, consider several factors. First, consider the mature size and growth form of the tree. Some crabapples have a wide, spreading, rounded habit, while others have a more upright growth. Choose the one that best fits your landscaping situation. Select disease-resistant trees and think about bloom color and fruit.
Below are just a few worth considering.
‘Sentinel’: an upright tree with red blooms; resistant to all the major diseases
‘Coralburst’: a compact, rounded variety with excellent disease resistance; pink blooms
‘Sargent’: spreading form, excellent disease resistance and white blooms
For more information on growing crabapple trees, see the resources below:
The University of Illinois Extension shows you how to select a crabapple tree on YouTube.
Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.