John Downie Crab Apple and Chickens

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John Downie Crab Apple

Carol has an addiction to chickens, when she says, 'Can I get another hen?' It means chicken maths, one hen = three hens and another twenty-four hiding in the hedge. I suffer from an addiction to trees, I love buying them and on very rare moments, chopping them down when they have come to the end of their days. I love to prune. There, I have said it, I love a sharp pair of secateurs and pruning a tree to bring in light and air, and shape. I love to think of what the tree will be like after I am gone. For it is true, the best thing we can all do to stamp our mark on this world is to plant a tree that will be here long after we have gone. With that in mind I ordered a crab apple from R.V. Roger, it's a John Downie, it's vigorous, showy and has fruit around an inch long (that's 2.5-3cm in new money). I forgot to tell Carol that it was coming, when it showed up I tried to hide it but the parcel was around six feet long and foot wide. I told her that it was Jimmy Hoffa, she didn't buy it. She did that sigh that simply said, 'It's a bloody tree, isn't it?' I spilled my guts, Edward G. Robinson would have laughed at me, see (I have no idea where all the mob references are coming from as I am watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at the moment and reading Station Eleven). We have learnt at Pig Row to never plant our new trees in the ground, they tend to go into shock, then sulk, then keel over crying. What we have discovered is they do really well if we first grow them on in a sack. Cue sack and a story of how I took a bare rooted tree and planted it, like a big boy.


Take your sack, any sack, could be an old compost bag, just make sure you punch some holes in it with a garden fork first or you'll end up with root and compost soup when it rains. I added some of our own compost and leafmould. I have a habit of starting these mixed bags of fallen leaves and other-stuff-for-rotting in old compost bags around the garden, I then forget they are there, tucked behind a shed, left on top of a wall (I do wear glasses) and then a year or two later I discover them, sigh at my forward thinking or forgetfulness. I sprinkle some of this goodness into the bottom of the sack and place in the roots of the John Downie...woah there! Let's rewind to the start of this post, did you see the tree in a bucket of water? And you're having a go at me for forgetting compost heaps I've started. Yes, before all this planting and mob references, that tree has to sleep with the fishes, dunk it in a bucket and hold it down below the water until it squeals no more. Fifteen minutes should do it, even half an hour, but make sure those roots get a good soaking.

Bare rooted tree, life on pig row

Now, you can add it to the sack, now you can cover those roots with that compost you lovingly forgot (or compost you purchased). Just make sure that you do not go above the graft, this is where the tree has been 'grafted' to the root stock. The root stock dictates how fast the tree will grow, you may have come across some of these, our trees tend to be M106 this means our trees will get to around 13ft high and 13ft wide (that's around 4m). You can see a complete list of root stocks on the RHS website here but a word of warning, never buy a fruit tree without knowing the root stock or else you could grow something that breaks the sound barrier and the foundations of your home.


Then comes the moment when you have to take it's head see, I have no idea where all this mob violence is coming from but really you can't have it telling anyone where you planted it. There is a reason why a maiden (a tree that is around one year old and straight as a whip) needs an initial prune. At present, you have a leader, one wonderful straight miniature trunk reaching to heaven and if you don't prune it now you won't get those important, fast growing, vibrant side shoots because the old saying, 'sap rises' is true, it does, and it goes upwards in a straight line unless you break that journey into different paths. That's why apple trees need pruning twice a year, in winter to encourage these side shoots and summer to keep them in check.


Close your eyes, this may make you feel sick but you're going to have to use a pair of sharp, clean secateurs to remove around a third of the new tree's top growth. This will encourage it to produce those side shoots and to grow in that traditional lollipop shape.

Man pruning apple tree

Here's the cut, it's at a forty-five degree angle. There is a simple reason for this, a tree is a living thing and like a flat roof, it doesn't like water sitting on it. You make a straight, flat cut and when it rains, it will sit there and anything damp, rots.

Pruning apples

I then watered my new tree. I know it sat in bucket full of water but that is about re-hydration, it's good for roots as well as skin, now it needs a drink and the water brings all the compost into contact with the roots. This is about hydration, cue silky advert with voiceover that tells you that eighty-five trees out of one hundred love a watering can. Don't be shy with that watering can, you want the water to run through the sack (no one said the silky advert would continue).

Watering trees

The water should run through like this.

Watering tree

So, now I have a John Downie Crab Apple to go into my orchard in a year's time. If the roots grow even quicker - which I know on a crab apple, they do - it will probably go into the ground in late summer. In the mean time to appease the chicken maths lady, all the straw packaging it came in went to her hens. She was delighted, standing there with six chickens stuffed in her pockets and whistling innocently that she'd been shopping.

Hens in straw


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