John Downie crab apples.
GARDENING CRIKEY! It is going to be a very berry Christmas this year.
The traditionalists among us would say berry-laden bushes are the portent of a harsh winter to come — the realists believe a cracking summer produced just the right conditions for bumper fruiting.
Whatever the reason, I’ll take this opportunity to sing the praises of a couple of the trees and shrubs which add colour at a predominantly dull time of year.
I mentioned cotoneaster last week but the variety that is my favourite is horizontalis.
As its name may suggest, C. horizontalis is low-growing and perfect for disguising a dwarf wall of a conservatory without obscuring light.
The dwarf, deciduous shrub spreads to up to 6ft in width, with distinctive, flat, regularly branched sprays of foliage with small glossy leaves that turn orange and red in autumn.
The great thing about this versatile shrub, which can be used in borders as well as against a wall, is it will survive in most conditions, even drought, once established.
It has inconspicuous, pink-tinged flowers in spring, which turn to a profusion of red berries in autumn.
Holly is looking great — even my usually sparse tree has the odd berry here and there — so no fruitless searching this year for a tree with berries not plundered by the birds.
But king of outdoor colour, to my mind, at this time of year is the crab apple.
With the re-birth of home-cooking and preserves, it is a fruit that is, quite rightly, coming back into fashion.
It has had its use in my mini-orchard as a multi-purpose pollinator but it also looks great at this time of year and may find its way into jars.
Because it has a long flowering period, the crab apple will pollinate all apple groups, from the earliest to the latest flowering.
There are ever more crab varieties out there for the serious enthusiast but one not to watch out for — if you do want a pollinator — is huperensis. The Chinese crab apple won’t pollinate other apples.
However, golden hornet and another gold variety, Evereste, will, as will one of the more unusual varieties, the American crab apple. Coronaria Charlotte has white, violet-scented flowers in spring, which is an added bonus.
But my favourite remains Malus John Downie, although this year it has suffered badly from scab, as have a lot of apple varieties.
John Downie is renowned both for being attractive and heavy cropping, producing some of the best yields of crab apples for use in the kitchen.
They are commonly planted in orchards but their narrow canopy makes them a great specimen tree for a small garden and they can reach a height of 30ft in as many years.
John Downie has abundant white blossom in mid-to-late spring and good red-gold autumn colour. It is a vigorous tree but it naturally keeps an upright form.
The long, conical, bright red-orange fruit are some of the largest of any crab apple tree. They can either be left on the branches for their ornamental value or used to make crab apple jelly and apple sauce.
They are also pressed and blended with the juice of other apples to make cider. The crab is used to 'dry out’ sweeter apples.
John Downie is one of the best pollinators for orchard apple trees, along with golden hornet.
The former was bred in the 1870s by Mr E. Holmes and he named it after his friend, a Scottish nurseryman.
It has won both the RHS Award of Garden Merit and Award of Merit for displays of its cut flowers.
Golden hornet would be my second choice for its profusion of white flowers followed by a heavy crop of deep yellow fruit, which in common with all its kind, hang on to the branches well into winter.
Crab apples like full sun but will tolerate partial shade and they will flourish in sheltered positions and exposed aspects too.
They grow in moderately fertile soil that can be acid, neutral or alkaline, loam, clay, sand or chalk.
They also make nice feature trees in small gardens and look good in patio pots too.
Another use is as a hedge or as part of a mixed barrier with hawthorn or blackthorn.
Crabs have the great advantage they respond to pruning by putting out a profusion of shoots — great for hedging.
Malus sylvestris (which means forest apple) can be bought as 'whips’ to make a hedge and, generally, it is recommended they should be 40cm to 80cm in height.
That is the optimum for ease of establishment at a reasonable price, and it is worthwhile perhaps seeking out friends who may also wish to establish hedges.
My favourite supplier will charge just over £2 a whip for between one and nine, but the price reduces to just 97p for between 50 and 249 — and more yet for bigger orders.
Considering the recommended spacing is one per foot, that’s not bad value — and they come with a year’s guarantee too, which shows they must be pretty bullet-proof.
A staggered, double row makes a more substantial hedge, though at five plants per yard, two fifths more expensive.