Green Scene: Crabby municipal tree

SUBMITTED PHOTO Crabapple trees line a Clarks Summit street.

It's about time for municipalities to start placing their orders for fall bare root plantings. Trees ordered by municipalities will typically be planted along streets or in parks by volunteers, homeowners or professionals. Homeowners and businesses looking to enhance their properties will also be thinking about fall plantings.

Don't plant crabapples.

I, who have ordered and planted crabs myself, shudder, but I heard me right. Don't plant them. Here are the reasons.

First, look at the photo. Years ago, our shade tree commission ordered 10 crabapples to line the streets of a major land-holding public institution in our borough. At the time, our commission always deferred to property owners on right-of-way plantings. Although it initially gave the green light, the institution reversed course claiming a liability issue if school children were throwing the dime-sized fruit. (There might be a bigger liability issue if school children were playing in the right-of-way, but that is a different matter). So we had to move the trees to a commercial-residential-municipal border-land. Yes, look at the photo again. You can't see any crabapples because they are hardly there. They do bloom, but essentially they have not grown any bigger than when we planted them. Crabapples just don't grow quickly.

But they do eventually grow. And here there are additional reasons for not growing them. First, even though they fit under power lines, it takes forever for them to form canopies. In other words, they are going to poke you in the eye for a long time. This also means that aside from a two-week flower show, you get very little tree bang for your buck: In other words, very little shade, very little privacy, very little stormwater intervention, etc.

How crabapples do grow is also problematic. Have you ever heard of someone having to remove suckers from an oak? Have you ever heard someone say you need to prune a linden tree so that you can throw a cat through it? No. But crabapples need that kind of maintenance.

As for maintenance, crabs often need special leaf removal and spraying if the scab fungus is to be thwarted. With a rainy spring like we had this year, it is no surprise that many apples and crabapples have no leaves in September. (Without the fungus, leaves would stay until November).

So once the crab's liabilities are compared against its assets, there is very little return on investment for this Central Asia native. Years after I placed the order for our aborted vision of a blooming pink thoroughfare, a more mature vision has taught me that there are only two sustainable places for the crabapple: a high-maintenance specimen garden, and a high-maintenance orchard. Otherwise, in general, let's plant other higher performing trees and leave the crabapple's pruning, spraying, specialized leaf-clean-up and under-utilized space to the orchardists.

Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit's municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business. Reach him at


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