The Art of Espalier

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Introduction & Brief History

Espalier is a  method of training and pruning a tree or shrub, forcing it to grow flat against a wall or free-standing trellis, creating a living sculpture or fence.  The art of espalier is said to have originated in the middle ages as a way to grow fruit inside the safety of castle walls.  Some records even set the origins of espalier as far back as 1400 B.C.

Many non-fruiting plants such as Magnolias, Dogwoods, Yews and Cotoneaster, can all be espaliered.

Espalier has a great deal of ornamental value, taking most any garden from traditional to downright stunning.  However, it’s benefits extend far beyond it’s beauty and stems into it’s function as well, as it’s long been known as an effective technique for increasing fruit production while growing fruit in a small space.  Growing against a wall may also have the added benefit of preventing bud-kill from early frosts.

Homegrown fruits dangling across a flat surface also has the added benefit of easy harvesting, as you don’t need a ladder and can easily see your fruit lined up on these neatly trained branches..

You don’t need a full orchard to grow apple trees.  A sunny wall, a little technique and  a little patience will serve you long and well.

To encourage substantial fruit production, prune with two objectives in mind:

  1. Training the tree to the classic flattened, horizontal shape desired of an espalier; and
  2. Encouraging the growth of short, fruiting stems, or spurs, that will ultimately produce your fruit.

Where to Grow

Before you go all crazy with getting your plants home and dropping them in the ground, make sure you determine a good location.

Espaliers should be grown against a wall (usually brick or stucco), a sturdy trellis or pergola, along horizontal wires secured to sturdy free-standing posts or other flat surface.  The wall will have the advantage of absorbing heat to hasten ripening as well as sheltering the trees from freezing winds that could damage buds and branches.

You will need about 8 linear feet in a well-drained spot that gets full sun (at least 6 hours of light per day).

Once you’ve determined where you want to grow, you want to make sure you’re working with good soil.  It is so much easier to get this right at the beginning than it is to fix it later!  Starting with the right or wrong soil can be life or death to your plants.  Determine what kind of fruit, flowers or foliage you’re looking to grow and what kind of dirt it likes to live and play in.  Plants that are grown in unfavorable soil, light or conditions tend to produce far less fruit and are more prone to pests and disease as they’re in a state of distress.

Amend your soil with plenty of compost, organic hummus and composted manure.  Also, make sure the soil has some variation to break things up, providing oxygen to the roots and allowing them to stretch out more readily.

Where to Buy

Mail order catalogs are typically the best source for selecting trees to espalier.  Be sure you pay attention to the USDA hardiness zones in which it can be grown.  I generally like to look for plants that can tolerate the cold to at least one zone below mine so as to decrease the potential for losing my plants in the event we have a particularly cold winter.

If you live in a particularly warm area, you may also want to check your AHS heat zones as well.

When selecting, try to avoid making your decision just based on the pretty pictures.  I know, I totally want to buy like 80% of what I see in the catalog but let’s just say, I’ve learned my lessons here the hard way so you don’t have to.

You want to look for a reputable company.  Locals are great as you can visit the nursery to inspect the plants before bringing them home.  Buying from a local nursery has the added benefit of resolving (in most cases) the matter of whether or not that particular cultivar will be hardy in your area.  Be sure to check that the particular variety you are interested in is good for this technique.

What to Buy

In particular, you want to look for trees that have been grafted onto DWARF ROOTSTOCK.  Commercial apple trees are grafted onto roots of selected hardy apple trees.  Some rootstock is dwarfing and will produce small trees.  Other rootstock produces full-sized trees that , when espaliered, will have much thicker, heavier trunks and branches.

You want to start with a 2-3-foot sapling, or “whip,” that is still very pliable and has not yet grown any side branches.

Next, you want to look for cultivars that are disease and pest resistant.  You don’t want Genetically Modified plants!  You do want varieties that have proven themselves over time.  DO NOT waste your time by filling your garden with cheap plants.  Know what you’re buying!  If the plants are not disease or pest resistant, you will likely find yourself dumping money into disease and pest solutions only to end up frazzled, frustrated and fairly fruitless.  Same rules apply to ornamentals.

Trust me.  This will pay off in spades!

Finally, if you are growing different varieties, you might want to check to be sure that those varieties are good pollinators for each other.  Different cultivars can have different bloom times, interferring with cross-pollination.  Some fruit trees are “self-pollinating.”  Some may be considered “universal pollinators,” such as crabapple trees for all apple trees.  Other may be broken down into groups based on bloom times.

If you’re only growing one, make sure it is a self-pollinator!

I know this may seem like a headache but considering the time it takes to establish an espalier, do you really want to learn the hard way after you’ve put in 3-5 years of hard work and hope?

Though not.

Do your research and plan it out.  There are many resources out there to help you along the way.  Do your homework and choose wisely.

Which Fruit Trees Do Best?

Apples and pears are the most common choices.  Peaches and pomegranates are also known to do well.  Still you can give most any type of fruit tree a try with this technique, as long as the fruit suits your climate.

Sorry Pennsylvanians, no lemon tree espalier for you today…unless maybe you have a killer spot indoors.

Dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties are best suited for small spaces.

What You’ll Need:

  • Your Well-Chosen Tree: Bare-Root, any height (unbranched whips ideal)
  • Compost
  • Wire-Cutter
  • Pliers
  • Drill with a 3/16″ Drill Bit
  • Digging Shovel
  • Pruning Shears
  • Stretchy Plant Ties or Pantyhose, cut into strips
  • Pencil or Chalk
  • Yardstick or Measuring Tape
  • 12-Gauge Wire (about 28 feet or more, depending on length you’ll be running espaliers)
  • 3/16″ Eye Bolts (Use 3/16″ Wall Mounts on Masonry)

How to Espalier

  1. Choose location, as discussed above.
  2. Measure 4 feet up from the soil (final tree height) and center the spot on the wall or support. Chalk a vertical line (the “trunk”) from your centered spot to the ground.
  3. Along your vertical “trunk line,” mark a spot 16 inches from the ground (the first branch tier), and repeat twice. You will now have a 4-foot vertical line with three spots marked on it at 16-inch intervals.
  4. Now mark out the tree width. Begin at the first 16-inch tier mark on the “trunk” and measure 3-1/2 feet on both the right and left of the trunk. Repeat for the second and third tiers, then draw horizontal lines from point to point. What you should see is a single 4-foot vertical line intersected by three horizontal lines, 16 inches apart and 7 feet wide.
  5. Install the eyebolts or wall mounts to the wall/support. A bolt should be placed on the “trunk line” at ground level and where the first, second and third tiers cross. Also attach bolts to each end of each of the 3 horizontal lines.
  6. Thread wire through the eyebolts following the pattern drawn on the wall, both vertical and horizontal. Twist the wire at the ends to secure it, and snip.
  7. Now it’s time to plant your tree. In spring or fall, dig a hole in front of the vertical wire that is 12-14 inches wide and equally deep. Mix half of the shoveled-out soil with compost. Position the tree whip in the hole so that the crown sits at soil level. Remember to position it 4-5 inches from the wall with a bud just above the first-tier guide wire.
  8. Backfill the hole with the soil/compost mixture and water in well.
  9. Attach the trunk to the vertical wire, somewhere below the first-tier horizontal wire, with a stretchy plant tie to avoid bark damage.
  10. Take a deep breath and top the center trunk by making a cut about 1-2 inches above the first-tier wire, right above a bud. Make sure there are at least three buds below this one. This action will force the tree to send out branches at or near the first-tier height.
  11. During the first season, let the buds grow into new shoots. Pick the three sturdiest ones and prune off the rest. When the shoots are 3-4 inches long, gently bend and tie one to the lowest right-side horizontal wire and another shoot to the left. Your tree should now look like a lower-case “t”.
  12. Don’t let the center trunk grow more than 6” over the first tier. Snip it back as the horizontal branches grow to keep it in check.
  13. When the first-tier branches have grown three-quarters of the way to the end of their support wire, allow the central trunk to grow to the second tier and start the process again.  Repeat once more until you have three tiers, each about 7 feet long from end to end.

How and When to Prune

You may need to prune two or three times per season to keep the tree in shape. The first pruning should be after it blooms in the spring. The flowers will indicate where the fruit will be, and you can prune accordingly. (Always use very sharp, clean shears that have been dipped in diluted bleach solution, or wiped down thoroughly with an alcohol wipe, rinsed and dried after each use to prevent potential disease spread.)

While it usually takes about four years to get the full artistic effect of your efforts, you may actually see fruit as soon as the second year… but if you want the most from your espaliered tree, remove that developing fruit for a year or two.

Then keep an eye on it, nipping off vertical shoots, and removing suckers and water sprouts. Shorten the horizontal branches to encourage the development of a fruiting spur. Because there will be more fruiting spurs produced along the horizontal branches than the vertical trunk, eventually you will have many fruits setting on your espaliered tree, so make sure your support is strong.

Watering and Fertilizing

The young tree needs the equivalent of about a gallon of water every 7-10 days until it’s established. If you find that rain is keeping your tree watered, you don’t need to provide any additional water. Just step in when Mother Nature leaves you dry. Find more advice on watering fruit trees here.

Just like with a fruit tree growing naturally, you can apply a specially-formulated fertilizer for fruit trees as needed during the growing season. Follow the directions on the package so as not to burn the young tree roots. Find tips on fertilizing wisely here.

The reward of your patience, persistence and attention to detail will provide you not only with a fine fruit crop, but with a rather spectacular living sculpture that will set your fruit garden far apart from the ordinary!

Espalier Designs

There are countless possibilities when it comes to designing your espalier.  Here are a few ideas to get you started.  This is an image I pulled through a basic web search.  Be sure to hit up Bing or Google to check out more patterns and see some of the beautiful espaliers popping up in other’s gardens.


Espalier Patterns

espalier 3

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