Photos by Bruce Ingram
The author checking on his Dolgo crabapple tree. Note the tree guard, wire cage and many berries. This tree was only 3 years old when the picture was taken.
better for the beak
Crabapples are much more than the tiny, bitter fruits small boys load into slingshots to torment girls. Mark Hatfield, senior NWTF wildlife biologist, explains their value to wildlife.
“Crabapple trees play a role in restoring the shrubby component needed in some regions, such as the Northeast,” he said. “Of course, crabapples also benefit wildlife in other regions, including the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, but those have a more varied food supply and don’t get the snowfall as does the Northeast.
“A benefit of crabapples over apples is turkeys can use them easier, since a turkey’s beak is not designed to eat large apples. Crabapple trees also hold their fruit longer, making it available to wildlife over a longer period.”
Donnie Buckland, the NWTF’s private lands coordinator, explains where this fruit thrives.
“Crabapples do best when planted in full sunlight, which allows for maximum potential for blooms and fruit,” he said. “A multitude of varieties of crabapples have varying colors of flowers and fruits. Landowners should pick a crabapple that is best suited for their purpose, whether it be for wildlife or landscaping.”
Buckland said crabapples generally prefer slightly acidic, well-drained soil. Most varieties will prosper throughout the country except for the extreme North and South and areas of the arid Southwest.
He adds the NWTF offers two varieties (Calloway and Dolgo) in a fruit package that also includes apple trees. It is always a good idea to plant more than one variety, which aids in pollination and usually results in flowers and fruit appearing at different intervals.
“Most landowners who plant for wildlife prefer varieties that hold the fruit late into the season,” Buckland said.
“The Calloway and Dolgo varieties hold their fruit into late fall and winter.”
Crabapples in the food plot
Benny Hallman, whose family operates Hallman Farms Wildlife Nursery in Little Mountain, South Carolina, said crabapple trees can thrive in food plots if landowners do a few things.
“Planting crabapples in a food plot is similar to planting regular apple trees in one,” he said. “Both trees are shallow-rooted, so they may need supplemental watering if the year has been dry. Watering is especially important the first year the trees are planted. We also recommend positioning crabapple trees 15 to 20 feet from other trees.
“Like apples, crabapples should be planted in full sun. They will survive in partial sun, but their growth will be leggy and fruit production will suffer. Crabapple trees need minimal pruning, whereas apples require a great deal. Crabapple trees also bear sooner, often at just a few years old.”
Hallman agreed with Buckland on the wisdom of planting several varieties, and added that they flourish in soil with a pH of about 6.5. Generally soil “a little heavy on the potassium side” is best, and a 10-10-10 fertilizer should be sufficient. Test your soil if you are unsure of its pH.
Hallman urges crabapple growers to protect their trees.
“Rabbits are bad about girdling crabapple trees, so they will need protection around the trunk,” he said. “These trees also have drooping limbs, and deer will heavily browse the leaves. A wire enclosure around the tree is necessary, especially when it is young.”
Hallman believes the Dolgo crabapple is the best “all-round variety.”
My Dolgo tree produced three quarts of berries at 3 years old, and I expect an even bigger crop this autumn — and so do the wild creatures that frequent my property. — Bruce Ingram