Garden Design, Gardening, Liam, Plants, Trees, Wildlife

Cherry trees are one of the nation’s, if not the world’s, favourite species of ornamental tree. However, there is another tree which flowers heavy, remains small but also gives the added appeal of bright and colourful fruit; the humble crabapple. Often overlooked by gardeners a crabapple tree is fully hardy and well suited to the UK climate with a fantastic spring bloom. With smaller growth than most cherry trees they are perfect for a more modern, compact garden. The benefits and aesthetic achieved with a crabapple tree can be a refreshing surprise.

In many ways the crabapple serves a national duty. Native to these shores they tolerate the worst of the British weather and can be grown in almost any soil type as long as it is well-drained. Nearly all are recognised wildlife benefactors and so are fantastic for up-keeping our national biodiversity. There really should be a crab-apple for every home!

Crab-Apple Blossom
Beautiful Crab-Apple Blossom

Most crabapple varieties produce a bloom heavy enough to rival that of any cherry tree and can come in a variety of different tones. You may get light white or deep pink, sweetly scented flowers. Flowering in Spring they are one of the first to add colour to the garden. This is an essential helping hand to pollinating insects coming out of winter. All of this keeps the rest of your garden healthy and looking great!

What a crabapple gives you over an ornamental cherry tree however is the colourful, jewel-like fruit which can hang on well into winter and even through to the new year depending on variety. The tree therefore gives you a rich and varying pallet of tones potentially for over half a year! The deeper roots of a Crabapple also make them a safer bet to maintaining a healthy lawn than a cherry blossom.

But that’s not all, the fruit serves more functions than those purely aesthetic. Despite the fact that nearly all varieties are far too sour to eat in their natural state crabapples serve a host of culinary functions. Rich in pectin crab apples are used for making fantastic jams and jellies which can be served on bread, scones or used to compliment various meats. And if you won’t eat the fruit, birds and small mammals certainly will in those tough winter months.

If you already own apple trees then you’ve just been given another huge reason to love the crabapple. Crabapples can cross pollinate nearly all other varieties of apple as long as they both have a similar flowering period. It is for this reason that crabapples are often dotted around apple orchards to offer variety and pollinate the edible cultivars enriching their flavour.

Bird Enjoying Crabapples During Winter

So there you have it; if you have an ornamental cherry (or two) in the garden, or if you are just looking for something a bit different then look no further than the crabapple. Hardy, beautiful and versatile they continue to serve us well and are becoming increasingly important as our gardens become smaller and our native species come under increasing attack.

Liam at PrimroseLiam works in the buying team at Primrose. He is passionate about studying other cultures, especially their history. A lover of sports his favourite pass-time is football, either playing or watching it! In the garden Liam is particularly interested in growing your own food.

See all of Liam’s posts.

Jorge, Plants, Trees

Cherry trees are an important, multifaceted part of Japanese culture with its blossom (sakura) featuring on everything from political and military insignia to popular designs and coinage. Despite this, cherry tree blossom is fleeting with the flowers’ lifespan usually lasting only a week. It is this exact quality that explains the trees’ enduring appeal  – the symbolic representation of the transient nature of life, and beauty itself, which is celebrated with the popular custom of hanami, in which Japanese picnic under the bloom.

Over the centuries, the sakura’s meaning has evolved, but also become tightly interwoven with Japan’s cultural fabric. Not merely because of its beauty, but because political groups have sought to use the symbol for their own ends. Originally, the cherry blossom was connected to Japanese folk religions due to its phenology  – that is its capacity to flower during the changing of the seasons. Agricultural communities came to believe that the falling petals transformed into the deity of rice paddies. It was in this period that trees began to be transplanted into towns.

712 AD gives us the first written reference of cherry blossom. The Empress Gemmei, fearful of neighbouring Tang Dynasty’s power, sought to compile an account of Japan’s unique development and distinctiveness from its neighbours. This compilation, Kojiki, raised the status of the cherry blossom (in contrast to China’s plum blossoms), beginning the custom of hanami in which nobles and commoner alike celebrated under the blossom.

The Heian period (794-1185) saw the spread of new sects of Buddhism throughout the Japanese landmass and witnessed the development of the concept mono no aware. The term is culturally significant and helps explain Japan’s love for the cherry tree blossom. It refers to an awareness and acceptance of impermanence as a reality of life. This is perhaps best demonstrated through this segment of Japanese television. Throughout the centuries, representations of sakura also proved highly popular in Japanese art as demonstrated in the art-deco masterpiece celebrating speed and modernity below.  

The 12th century saw the rise of the samurai, whose power was consolidated with the establishment of a feudal system under the shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo. Much like lords in Europe, samurai were provided with estates in return for military service and were motivated by their own code of chivalry, known as bushido. Part of the bushido’s code was an identification with cherry blossom as it fell at the moment of its greatest beauty, symbolising an ideal death. The samurai decorated their equipment with emblems of cherry blossom.

The Meiji restoration of 1868 saw the end of the shogunate and the establishment of the Empire of Japan. It began a process of centralisation, which reclaimed governing authority from the shoguns and samurai. Newly established, the Japanese Imperial Army took over the defense of the state, resulting in samurai losing their social status and privileges. Keen to reconfigure the Bushido code, Japanese were deemed of noble character, able to face death without fear and willing to die like beautiful falling cherry petals for the Emperor. In 1969, the Emperor set up the Yasukuni Shrine as a memorial devoted to fallen soldiers. It is lined with cherry blossoms, supposedly to console soldier’s souls.

Photo credit: Wiiii. Licensed under  CC BY-SA 3.0.

From the beginning of the Meiji period and until the end of WW2, the Japanese government sought to use cherry blossom symbolism as a means to bind the country together. After witnessing the occupation and division of neighbouring states, including the once mighty China, the state felt it necessary to create a strong, shared national identity to prevent against fracture. This establishment of the national essence of Japan is known as kokutai.

In 1910, the city of Tokyo sent 2,000 trees to the U.S. as a gift to President William Howard Taft, who had previously spent time in the Far East. These died on the way, but were replaced with a second batch that were planted along the Potomac and grounds of the White House in 1912. These trees proved popular and celebrations would eventually evolve into the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Interestingly, cuttings from these trees would be sent back to Japan to restore the original collection, which were badly damaged in WW2.

In WW2, the Empire again sought to utilise the Bushido code to inspire their troops. They revived the medieval proverb “hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi” that means as the cherry blossom is the first among flowers, so the warrior was first among men. In 1944, the Empire resorted to kamikaze operations in an effort to save Japan from defeat. Tokkotai, or kamikaze planes, were painted with cherry blossoms and pilots affixed branches to their uniforms.

Photo credit: Error. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

In March 2011, a tsunami struck Japan, devastating its coastal communities. The aftermath was documented in the Oscar-nominated “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” that includes a Japanese man’s reflections on the strength of the cherry tree to live on in spite of the devastation. The tree constituted an inspiration to continue living as if “the plants are hanging in there, so us humans better do it too”.

Today, cherry blossom helps mark the beginning of the financial and academic year in Japan, although the date of flowering is dependent on temperature. In recent decades, cherry blossom has flowered increasingly early – a fact put down to global warming. The blossoms are big business for Japan with the cherry blossom season attracting thousands of tourists. The countdown is televised with the Cherry Blossom Forecast documenting the advance of the blooms from south to north. Retailers cash in by offering a assortments of cherry blossom goods including many culinary delights such as sakura pepsi, crisps and tea.

And of course, there is hanami that is still widely celebrated throughout Japan. The custom takes two forms: one that involves partying (sakura parties) and the other that involves a more traditional observance of the blossoms (umeni). Like Christmas, hamani celebrations often involve special dishes and drinking of alcohol. Hanami at night is known as yozakura and many public places will hang up lanterns to facilitate such events.

Photo credit: Japanexperterna.se. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. 

So to summarise, cherry blossom are a huge part of Japanese culture representing the bravery of soldiers, the philosophical notion of mono no aware, peace and friendship with other countries, celebration and Japan itself.

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

Gardening, Gardening Year, How To, Liam, Plants, Trees

Many of us are unaware of what a good, well-shaped fruit tree is supposed to look like. We all know that it is supposed to bear fruit but sometimes we neglect that the key to this is pruning.

Whether you have just brought your fruit tree or if you have let nature run its course over the last few years it’s a perfect time to start an annual pruning regiment. A well-shaped fruit tree can support the most fruit and is less susceptible to disease and pest infestation.

Fear not! Pruning is not as daunting as it sounds and with this guide you’ll know how to prune a fruit tree in no time. With just a few hours every year you’ll be sure to expect a bumper crop of your very own.

In this guide we’ll be covering the two main types of fruit tree; the pome (apples, pears, seed bearing fruit) and stone (cherries, apricots, plums) fruit varieties. The central premise for all is the same but there are some slight adjustments in method and timing dependant on the variety.

Pruning a Pome – The Winning Formula

To those that know, gardening is incredibly sentimental. But to yield the greatest crop you have to be clinical and professional. Cutting so many young fruitlets, branches and leaves may feel counter-intuitive but in the long-run your tree will thank you for it, trust me. With that being said you do not want to be reckless. Over-pruning equally leads to a decline in the abundance of fruit.

Pruning serves two main functions; training and maintenance. As the tree is growing you can train it through pruning out undesirable branches and guiding the tree to an evenly-spaced, goblet shape. Once this is done you’ll be left with branches capable of supporting fruit. The objective then is to maintain this shape and keep things tidy.

How to Prune a Fruit Tree Diagram
Step by Step to the Desired Shape

For Young Trees (2-4 yrs)

  • When pruning a Pome fruit tree it is best to carry this out during the winter while the tree is dormant.
  • Always remember to cut at a 45° angle and to wash any pruning equipment in a sterilising solution if you are dealing with anything diseased. This will help prevent the spread of contamination.
  • The priority is to get rid of anything dead, dying or diseased. The goal is to manage the plant’s growth so that energy is directed into establishing the roots and healthy branches.
  • You then want to remove any vertical and acute growing branches. These branches won’t be able to support the weight of fruit and usually end up getting damaged.
  • You also want to prune away any branches that cluster or cross over. When these grow larger they’ll damage one another and help the spread of disease and pests. 
  • This may require you to cut as much as a 1/3 of all your branches if the tree is particularly unkempt.
  • We are looking to train the tree as horizontally as possible. So with the branches you have left you should cut back to an outward facing bud. This will stimulate growth from this bud training the branch outwards.

In the early years pruning is a form of training designed to stimulate growth in branches capable of supplying fruit. Even though by this point the side shoots may be very small it is a good idea to cut them off if they’re growing inward to maintain the desired shape early on.

For Older Trees (5+ yrs)

As the tree gets older however, and especially if you’ve been suffering from poor harvests, the aim is to maintain the shape and branches which can support fruit maximising your yields.

  • After removing anything dead, dying or diseased you then want to pick out any unfavourable branches. These again include any vertical, acute or congested branches. This opens the tree up allowing for air and sunlight to reach it.
  • Additionally if there are any branches growing from below the rootstock these are ‘suckers’ and should be pruned out entirely.
How to cut diagram
The Perfect Pruning Cut
  • After this, prune back last year’s growth on each of the main branches roughly by about ⅓. Prune back to just above a bud which looks like it will grow outwards in the desired direction.
  • A cautionary note; an apple tree will respond to very heavy pruning by a vigorous regrowth the following year. So if you have a tree which needs some serious renovation it may be worth spacing the work out over a period of 2-3 years.

After this, when you have a neat and well-trained tree, simple annual maintenance should keep a great shape for growing fruit.

Pruning a Stone Fruit Tree

  • Unlike the Pome a stone fruit tree such as a cherry or apricot will prefer being pruned during spring for younger trees and early to mid-summer for established trees. This is to prevent your tree being contaminated with silver leaf or bacterial canker, both of which serious tree diseases.
  • When it comes to pruning a stone fruit tree the method is the same as for the Pome fruit tree and again you want the same result; a goblet-shaped tree with strong, evenly spaced branches growing out horizontally.

  • Pruning in spring and summer may require you to cut out buds and fruitlets. However traumatising this process may seem it is necessary. The key to good pruning is to be as professional as possible; in the long run you and your tree will reap the benefits.

Despite the fact cutting off developing fruit may see wholeheartedly counter-intuitive it must be done and can actually lead to a better crop. Many trees naturally want to produce as many seeds as possible which can lead the tree to exhaust itself. If this happens your tree could fall into a biennial harvest; only producing fruit every two or more years. See the section on ‘thinning’ in our  apple tree troubleshooter (coming soon) for how to do this. 

Pruning is the key to a healthy tree and fruit which develops and ripens beautifully. Hopefully by now you know how to prune a fruit tree. Over time though you may recognise specific trees respond to different kinds of treatment. This is all part of a personal learning experience with your garden.

Liam at PrimroseLiam works in the buying team at Primrose. He is passionate about studying other cultures, especially their history. A lover of sports his favourite pass-time is football, either playing or watching it! In the garden Liam is particularly interested in growing your own food.

See all of Liam’s posts.

Gardening, Jorge, Planting, Plants, Trees

For many, fast growing trees are a no brainer as they allow you to quickly achieve your dream garden or block out annoying eyesores. Although, it is not so simple as selecting a fast growing variety that you like the look of. It is important you choose a variety that is disease and pest free and suitable for your soil type and hardiness zone. You also need to consider whether you want an evergreen tree or a tree that will shed its leaves in winter. Often unconsidered factors include weak wood, invasive roots, short life spans, a tree’s width and interference – the effects of competition and allelopathy.

As with all trees, you will need to clip in order to keep it the size/shape you want. Growth can be staggering and certain varieties will be impossible to manage after a certain point. Hence, it is important to carry out formative pruning while the tree is still young. Fast-growing trees will need to be clipped at more often than their slower growing cousins with extra clipping in the warmer seasons.

With planting the usual advice still stands but for optimal growth a tree will need to be accustomed to the hardiness zone and fit the drainage profile of your soil type. Native trees are always a good bet, as well as trees from colder climates. Sandy soils tend to drain quickly, while clay soils hold moisture well, so thirsty trees in sandy soils will need frequent watering in the hottest months.

Often ignored, but important is the effects of interference – the effects of nearby plants – on tree growth. Unlike how tree roots are traditionally represented, most absorbing roots are in the upper few feet of soil and root systems tend to spread horizontally, often extending well beyond a tree’s circumference. It is here that a tree’s roots will come into contact with other plants roots, where they both will compete for nutrients and moisture.

Especially detrimental to trees is grass that is known to retard root growth. Hence, it is important to remove grass and mulch 4 inches deep 1 foot beyond the root ball when planting. (Make sure the mulch does not directly contact the tree trunk to prevent disease/pest problems.) Expand the radius of mulching 1-2 feet per year for 3 years that will allow the tree to establish its root system.

Now, without further ado, here are some fast growing tree suitable to the UK’s climate.

Eucalyptus gunnii

The Eucalyptus gunnii or cider tree is a beautiful tree with with peeling cream and brown bark and elliptic grey-green foliage. Originating from Tasmania, the gunnii is suitable to grow throughout the UK, being able to withstand temperatures of -15 Celsius for significant periods. Growing at a whopping 1.5-2m per year, the tree tends to take a columnar shape, reaching a maximum height of 25m. The tree is highly versatile and will flourish in all soil types.

Did you know? The gunnii produces a sugar-rich sweet sap that the aborigines ostensibly fermented into an alcoholic drink – the first of its kind in Australia.

Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica)


As a genus Salix trees (mostly willows) are all fast growing, but the weeping willow species is the most famous, known for its grace and often found on the banks of lakes and rivers. The tree is distinctive for its low, sweeping branches that droop to form a canopy. Commonly used as a shade tree, the babylonica will grow 1.2-2.4m per year, reaching about 15m high. Suitable for most soils, the tree will flourish in waterlogged soil and will even absorb standing water. Modern hybrids include the highly popular Golden Weeping Willow (Salix x sepulcralis), known for its ability to create luxurious curtains of gold light.

Saule pleureur (weeping willow) by Claude Monet (1918).

Did you know? Despite its name, the babylonica actually originates from China. It received its scientific alias from the botanist Carolus Linnaeus, who incorrectly believed it was the tree described in the bible in the opening of Psalm 137. In fact, the trees growing along the rivers of Babylon were the Euphrates poplar.

Lombardy Poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’)

Like the smaller Italian cypress, the Lombardy poplar is known for its dramatic upright form and is often planted in rows to form a screen and can be sometimes viewed lining roads. The Italica grows extremely quickly with reported yearly growth rates of 3.6m, although one can expect 2.4/3m. Reaching a maximum height of 20m, the tree is deciduous and is identifiable by its catkins that come in two forms: crimson red (male) and cottony white (female). Although, most trees sold will be male clones. It must be noted the plant is short lived (15 years) and susceptible to disease.

Did you know? While the Italica first spread around Europe in the 18th century, it exploded in popularity in the 19th. This was to the concern of Scottish horticulturist John Claudius Loudon who deemed it “a most dangerous tree”, due to its capacity to destroy the harmony of the landscape when left in the hands of the amateur landscaper.

Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

Native to the UK, the silver birch is instantly recognisable by its white peeling bark, triangular shaped leaves and various catkins. (The tree is monoecious and thus possesses male and female catkins with the former distinguishable by their greater length and appearance in clusters.) The tree is extremely hardy and grows as far north as Lapland, reaching a maximum height of 30m, although 15m can be expected. Paling in comparison to the previous trees, but certainly no slouch, the pendula will grow at an average rate of 40cm per year.  

A Silver Birch’s female catkins.

Did you know? While birch bark has long been used in construction, it actually contains substances that make it an extremely useful material. The compound betulin, for example, possesses fungicidal properties can help preserve food, making it perfect for storage containers. Currently, scientists are researching the bark’s various substances that may be of use in medicine.

Golden False Acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’)

A favourite at Primrose, the Frisia produces fantastic colour throughout the year with its pinnate leaves and gorgeous white flowers. Bushy in appearance, its leaves emerge golden-yellow in Spring, before turning greenish-yellow in Summer and orange-yellow in Autumn. Wonderfully fragrant, the tree will grow between 30-45cm per year and is suitable for most soil types. Extremely hardy, the Frisia can expect to grow to a maximum height of 25m, although 15m can be expected.

Did you know? Due to the high concentration of flavonoid pigments in the heartwood, the False Acacia’s wood can endure for up to a hundred years, and is extremely resistant to rot. It is also extremely hard, making it perfect household furniture and flooring.

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

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