There are some garden plants which can’t make up their mind where they belong. Kitchen garden? Or flower borders?
The answer, almost always, is both. I’m a big fan of including ornamental-but-edible plants in the bit of the garden that isn’t explicitly for growing food: things like the fuchsias I harvest for their berries, or the lavenders and scented-leaf pelargoniums which on the rare occasions I have time and opportunity to channel my inner domestic goddess I use for flavouring cookie dough.
Crabapples fall firmly into this territory. They are pretty little garden trees, with lovely spring blossom and pretty good autumn colour too. They behave themselves impeccably, never outgrowing their space and needing little pruning: the worst you can say of them is that they have a bit of a meh outline that can look downright scruffy if you like your gardens architecturally pleasing. But in a wild garden like mine, that’s fine.
We inherited a crab with the garden but it has never, until this year, fruited. I’m not sure what’s brought on its current outburst of generosity: perhaps it’s because I pruned the top out last year to give it a slightly better shape and pulled off the curtain of Clematis montana that had – as it does most years – leapt across from the fence over which it grows rampantly alongside to climb up and over the crabapple as well. The montana is a lovely plant, and I forgive it everything each May when it smothers said fence (about 20ft long) with a confection of flowers so dense you can’t see the foliage underneath. But it’s sometimes hard to keep its ambitions for world domination in check.
Or maybe it’s just because it’s been a good year for apples: the Devonshire Quarrenden in the veg garden has been prolific this season, too. But anyway: for the first time the ground beneath was carpeted with little miniature apples. Pound after pound of them. They’re gorgeous.
I’m pretty sure our crab is a ‘John Downie’, the variety most often recommended if you want the best fruit: and I can vouch for its prolific harvest of large (2-3″) fruits. They are flushed red, but cook to a honey yellow.
For brilliant red crabapple jelly, you might try ‘Red Sentinel’, particularly lovely as the (smaller) fruits glow so bewitchingly against the foliage in autumn. ‘Golden Hornet’ I’m not so fond of: there was one in the gardens at Bicton College when I was studying there and its fruits turn an unappetising brown when overripe, still on the tree. It doesn’t, as they say in the trade, die well.
These are the three I have personal experience of: I’m told ‘Gorgeous’ and ‘Dolgo’ are better choices if you like your crabapple Jelly scarlet as the red fruits are somewhat larger than ‘Red Sentinel’. Crabs are naturally high in pectin and mix well with other fruits, so if you’re making jelly or jam, add a few crabapples to help it set: hedgerow jelly, made of crabapples and blackberries, is sublime. And as if that weren’t enough on the usefulness scale: crabapples will also pollinate domestic apples, so if you don’t have room for two full-sized apple trees, try one apple tree and one crabapple instead. They can even be espalier-trained if you only have a fence to spare. Versatile or what.