How to espalier trees?

Potted Fruit Trees

by Nik Magnus | © 2009 |

figure 1. Potted apple tree pruned to a vase shaped bush.

Fruit trees really prefer to be planted in the ground, but in some situations it would be great to have them in pots. Although you wont get the yield or size of fruit, dwarfing fruit trees will do well either as a espalier or open tree in pots. They should be planted in winter, and best to buy them bare-rooted one year old trees. Choose a large pot about 45-50cm diameter, putting a generous amount of small rocks or clay ‘crocks’ at the bottom to prevent soil leaking out of the hole when watering. Clay pots look lovely and are durable but heavy once full of soil and tree. Hard plastic pots are cheaper and lighter, while soft plastic pots (made out of tarpaulin material) can have handles that makes them easy to move. As they end up quite heavy, get a good trolley to lift them rather than move them by hand.

Choose a good quality potting mix and add a slow release fertiliser (like Osmocote), leaving 5-10cm of the pot unfilled. This will leave room for watering and adding mulch or compost. Plant the tree making sure the graft union not burried; it should be at least 5cm above the soil level. Water it in after planting. In spring, shoots will form – keep watering but avoid over-feeding with fertiliser until late spring when the tree is established.

Because of the limited amount of soil in a pot, potted trees are prone to drying out. Even though we may have good intentions at the outset, mostly we don’t get around to watering our pots as much as they need. When soil dries completely it becomes difficult to absorb water again – try to avoid this by regular watering and mulching. A simple automated irrigation system can be bought reasonably cheaply and connected to a single dripper line to give your pots a daily watering. Get your watering system organised in winter / spring when you plant your tree, rather than waiting for warm dry weather in late spring and summer. Position your pots in full sun if possible, and avoid wind. Staking the tree will give it some support.

figure 2. Potted espalier. (left to right) planting the new tree; pruning; rub off all but three shoots; growing up in summer; attaching to an esplalier in autumn.

Prune your fruit trees in a similar way to those planted in the ground. If choosing an espalier, prune about 30cm above the graft when planting, and select the top three shoots to be your left, right and vertical shoots. Once the new shoots have hardened by the following autumn or winter, you can erect a vertical post with a cross piece and tie the left and right branches down. More information can be found in our ‘Espaliering made easy’ article.

For a free standing tree, prune a little higher up (say 60cm high) to encourage side branches rather than a vertical leader. There are many ways to prune, but the idea is to let light into the centre of the tree, while encouraging fruiting spurs. More information can be found in our ‘Spanish Bush’ article.

Potted fruit trees should be fed regularly with liquid fertiliser in spring and summer, plus the top mulch / compost layer scraped away and replaced afresh. They can be re-potted and roots trimmed every 2-3 years, but be sure to do this only in late winter when the tree is dormant.

The easiest types of fruit trees to pot up include apples, pears, cherries, quince, plums, nectarine, peach and apricot. If you plan to eventually plant your trees out into the ground, dont grow them in a pot for more than 1-2 years; any older and they wont produce such a good tree once transplanted.

The Daley News

September 2014

Gardening in Small Spaces

In this Spring Edition of our newsletter we focus on Growing Fruit Trees in small places.

We start off with Mary Tang from Sydney:

We were thrilled to see Mary Tangs garden featured in a recent episode of Gardening Australia. Costa showed us around her productive potted garden that fits into not more than a car space in her north shore garden. Mary has a love for all things edible and grows citrus, figs and herbs, her garden has expanded from a pair of kumquats into a bountiful potted orchard of over sixty plants. Mary keeps her plants happy and healthy by regularly feeding them with small additions of fertilizer, she also prunes her trees regularly to keep them vigorous and to reduce the competition for space. Mary has been our customer for many years so it was very exciting for us to see her garden and how her trees have grown.

Mary loves to propagate her own plants and shows you how to propagate your own plants by Air Layering, also known as marcotting, this is a technique that we use here at Daleys Nursery to propagate lychee and longan trees. If you want to try this at home, here is an excellent article showing you how to do it. How to propagate by Air Layering.

If you feel inspired by other people gardens and would like to share your own gardening experience you may do so on our My Edible pages. This allows you to keep track of you plants, how you grow them and how well they perform in your backyard. You can also upload pictures of your trees to share them with our passionate gardening community.

VideosNEW Fruit Trees In Pots & Dwarfed

Video: Canistel Fruit Tree – Emma

VideosNEW Espalier Fruit Trees

It is not just berry vines, kiwis and passionfruit that can be grown on a trellis. Espalier Fruit Trees can as well. In these next 2 videos we show you how fruit trees look when they are grown using this style.

Video: Dwarf Mulberry Tree Grown Espalier Style – Red Shahtoot

Video: Dwarf Apple Tree Grown Espalier Style

Video: Grafted Loquat Trees Bessell Brown VS Nagasakiwase

Plants that are perfect for pots

Some plants are perfectly suited to pots, the dwarf peach is a stunning little fruit tree that is ideal for pots and will fit into any backyard. They look beautiful when covered in spring blossom and will reward you with full sized peaches if you protect the fruits from birds, bats and fruit flies as they develop, this can be done with a small fruit saver net.

Dwarf catui coffee makes an ideal potted plant, it always looks gorgeous as it has dark green glossy foliage and a symmetrical form, it can also be grown as an indoor plant in climates that are less conducive to growing coffee like VIC & SA.

Citrus trees make the ideal pot plants, they are well suited to containers, respond well to pruning and are highly productive, not to mention that they look great when covered in fruit.

Figs such as the brown turkey will grow beautifully in pots and as Mary points out to us they produce fruit over and extended period so you can enjoy freshly picked, home grown figs every day for weeks.

Guavas, grumichamas, acerolas, blueberries and Brazillian cherries are a few other ideas for potted fruit trees. They are all attractive small plants that will look great and reward you with edible fruits in season. These are all well suited to smaller gardens or for growing in pots.

Fruit Trees – Small Space Options

Advantages of smaller or dwarf trees

A smaller tree is generally easier to maintain in terms of pruning, spraying, protecting from birds and netting and harvesting without the need for ladders or extended pruning equipment.

You can also grow more varieties in the same space, an important consideration for when you need pollinating partners or just want some variety in your fruit repertoire, e.g. apples, pears, plums with early, mid, and late harvest potential.

Many fruit trees can cope with being in containers too, an important consideration especially if you are battling poor or badly draining soils, e.g. citrus trees.

Space Saving Techniques

In the past the way to control the size of large trees has been mainly by continued hacking of branches in an attempt to make some of the high and best fruit within reach. Far better to plant, where possible, some form of dwarf fruit tree or use some sort of root restriction to keep tree size smaller.

Dwarf Rootstocks

Many fruit trees are grafted onto rootstock for different reasons, usually amounting to increased vigour for the tree and earlier fruiting. It also guarantees that the fruit grows true to type, which is never guaranteed when fruit is grown from a sprouting seed. Nowadays, rootstock is also chosen that will keep the eventual size of the tree to a more manageable size in response to smaller gardens. Recently, for example, new dwarfing rootstocks have been imported for Apricots, Plums and Cherries allowing traditional varieties to be kept to 2 metres or less compared to 4 to 6 metres in a standard tree.

Self-pollinating Trees

Keep in mind that some fruit trees require cross pollination from flowers of another variety of the same fruit (e.g. apples, pears and plums), while others are self-pollinating (e.g. peaches and nectarines) but still do better with other varieties about. If your neighbours have a pollinating partner to your trees, you can take advantage of this otherwise you will need to plant another tree.

Multiple Planting

The problem with needing a pollinating partner in limited space can be overcome by using the technique of multiple planting. Here planting two, three or even four varieties of trees of the same type (e.g. varieties of apples) in the same planting hole, about 45cm apart, will restrict the growth of the trees, while providing pollinating partners for each other.

Multi-Graft Fruit Trees

In this case you have up to 4 different varieties of one tree grafted onto the one trunk. Each branch will provide pollinating partners for each other; or in the case of peaches or nectarines which don’t need partners, extends the harvest of the fruit as some will be earlier and some later fruiting, a bonus for the home gardener. The main disadvantage of this system is that some branches may grow more vigorously than others, leaving one variety or another weaker and less productive.


This fashionable, two-dimensional space-saving technique can be used with most fruit trees though you need to start work on the espalier shape while the tree is still young and its growth supple. Espaliered fruit trees also have the benefit of being able to cover up boring and unsightly fences with delicious fruit! Trees can be espaliered into different forms, including fan-shaped, horizontally, candelabra and even random shapes. The important thing here is to be active in its training as the trees have a tendency to want to grow in more than 2-dimensions!

Container Growing

This is best suited to trees grafted onto dwarf rootstock and both traditional pip & stone fruit and especially citrus are suitable. Choose a container which is of a light colour like ‘terracotta’ (not black) whether plastic or terracotta material so it will not heat up in the sun. When planting into a container, don’t be tempted to put your tree straight into a much larger pot than the one it has come in. It is far better to re-pot every couple of years into the next-sized pot. This ensures denser root development and stronger growth. If you are into the final pot, then take the tree out and do a root-prune every few years when the tree is dormant and put in some fresh top quality potting mix. Trees in pots need you to take better care of their needs than when in-ground, so regular watering, especially over summer is essential as is the feeding regime. Mulching with a straw-based, light coloured mulch is also helpful.

Some final notes from Dennis

One area that causes confusion is the following:

Newer rootstocks have been released with traditional varieties grafted on to them e.g. dwarf Apricot rootstock with traditional varieties such as Moorpark or Trevatt; dwarf Plums with varieties such as Mariposa and Santa Rosa, produce true to type full size fruit. Apples such as Pinkabelle (= Pink Lady) and Leprechaun (= Granny Smith) grow true to type full sized apples on dwarf trees. All Citrus on dwarf rootstock grow true to type.

This is in comparison to many so called ‘dwarfs’ e.g. peaches – Pixzee, Red Leafed Peach where the fruit may not be like a traditional fruit or Ballerina Apples as in these cases the fruit will be different from standard varieties.

Training a fruit tree into an espalier takes a good dash of dedication

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Espaliered trees bring fruit down to eye level. They allow for easy picking and take advantage of small spaces.

But don’t kid yourself into thinking espaliers are any easier than regular-sized trees, said Ross Penhallegon, a horticulturist with Oregon State University’s Extension Service.

“Espalier is one of many ways to prune – or design — a fruit tree,” he said. “It’s beautiful, it doesn’t take up a lot of room in the yard. There are a lot of reasons to do it, but it takes dedication and time. It’s like growing grapes or wisteria correctly.”

In espalier, tree branches are typically trained flat along the wires of a trellis, which may be of several types, depending on how difficult an espalier project you want to attempt. In addition to a trellis, trees can be supported by a wall, wooden fence, or deer or cattle fencing.

If the trellis will be attached to a building, consider how it will look. Even though the trellis may be removed once the tree has reached its final, rigid state, it will need to remain in place long enough to support the tree, which can be up to 10 years.

The most important aspect of growing an espaliered tree, which can be any type of fruit but is usually an apple, is pruning. Unlike an open canopy tree, Penhallegon said, an espalier must be pruned several times during the growing season in order to keep in control.

“That’s a lot of cutting,” he said. “Most people don’t know how to prune, so it’s important to do your research before beginning.”

Penhallegon offers the following instructions for the simplest way to espalier an apple tree:

  • Build a trellis by setting posts 8 feet apart and stretch 12-gauge or heavier galvanized wire between them 18 inches from the ground. At that time you can add more levels of wire, typically three, each 18 inches taller than the other. Alternatively, you can wait until the following years when it’s time to train another level to add additional wires.
  • Buy a 1- or 2-year-old tree, preferably a dwarf variety, and plant in the middle of the trellis, usually in February. Attach two supple branches, which are called laterals, to the first level of wire, one going left and one going right. Prune out the thickest branch, which is generally in the middle and called the leader, and any other branches.
  • As the season goes on, weak branches – called suckers – will grow straight up. These need to be removed regularly. If they are young enough, rub off with your thumb or, if too thick, cut them off. Also appearing will be stubbier shoots – called spurs. Leave one about every 6 inches and cut off the rest. As they begin to grow, prune the spurs down to three leaves. This is where fruit will form after two years.
  • The year after beginning the espalier, start another level by training two lateral branches along the next level of wire and cutting off any additional branches. The following year, add another level.
  • After four years, cut off all spurs along one of the branches along the bottom wire to allow new ones to form. The next year, prune off spurs on the other branch on that same wire. In subsequent years, do the same thing, working your way up each level of the espalier.
  • For more information on espaliering, check out the Extension guide called Training and Pruning Your Home Orchard.

How to Espalier an Apple Tree

The horizontal cordon system is one of the simplest espaliers to create.

Site your espalier fruit tree against a wall or building to create a warmer microclimate.

Many gardeners would love to grow apples, pears, peaches, and other tree fruits in their yard, but don’t have the room or climate to accommodate them. While there are many dwarf tree fruit varieties on the market, sometimes even these trees are too large for a small yard. Plus, if you live in a cold winter or cool summer climate, some fruits just won’t grow and mature well for you.

That was the same dilemma facing gardeners in northern France and England in the 16th century. Gardeners in cold winter areas wanted fruit trees, but didn’t have the proper climate for it. So they developed a pruning technique that would allow these normally large trees to fit in small areas such as along a fence or wall. In this way they could create a microclimate along south, east, or west facing walls to grow fruit varieties that normally wouldn’t produce in their area. They also found that trees trained in this way can be very productive. Espalier pruning continues to be popular in Europe, and is now done around the world.

What started as a way to grow trees in small spaces has turned into an art form. Espalier allows a gardener to create a beautiful work of art that will grace the landscape with interest in all four seasons. Espalier comes from the Italian word that means “something to rest the shoulder against.” It’s an appropriate term because all forms of espalier — cordon, fan, Belgium fence, candelabra — are all similar in that the trees are grown in a flat, two-dimensional plane, often against a wall or structure. One of the most common espalier designs is an apple tree trained to a horizontal cordon. You can now purchase fruit trees in an espalier form, but it’s much more satisfying, and cost effective, to train your own. Here’s how to get started.

Selecting Your Site and Tree

Plant your apple trees in full sun (6 to 8 hours a day) on well drained, fertile soil about 15 feet apart. A south, east, or west facing wall, fence, or building is best. You’ll have to support the developing branches with a trellis system, so select a site where you can run a wire trellis outlining the ultimate shape of the tree. To help you along, if you have a rock, brick, or stone wall, sketch out the ultimate shape of the tree (usually three branch tiers spaced 2 feet apart with an ultimate height of 6 feet and width of 6 to 7 feet) with chalk on the wall. This will give you a design to follow. Anchor your wires into the wall or attach them to the fence.

While any apple can be espaliered, for a horizontal cordon system, choose a dwarf or semi-dwarf, spur-type apple variety. ‘Macintosh’ and its many crosses are good choices for the horizontal cordon system because their branches tend to grow horizontally already. ‘Golden Delicious’ is a nice choice if you only have room for one tree because it is self-fertile. ‘Liberty’ and ‘Honeycrisp’ are good modern varieties because they are disease resistant and require less spraying.

Make sure the espaliered tree is at least 6 inches away from the house so it doesn’t effect the house siding.

Prune espaliered trees 2 to 3 times in winter and summer to keep the shape and growth habit.

Training the Young Tree

Now the fun begins. Here’s a step by step process of training your young tree.

  1. Purchase one-year old whips (small, unbranched trunk) from your nursery and plant in spring.
  2. Plant your whip in the middle of your designed trellis wire system about 6 inches away from the wall or structure.
  3. Select a bud about 2 feet above the base of the graft union and prune off the rest of the whip just above it.
  4. Branches will begin to grow out from below the cut. Select the strongest 3 shoots and trim away the rest. When the shoots are 3 to 4 inches long, tie one to the right hand side wire and another one to the left hand side wire trellis.
  5. The third shoot will be allowed to grow vertically to the next horizontal level and repeat the pruning and training process.
  6. Any vertical or errant shoots that develop on the lateral tiers should be pruned back to 5 inches tall to create fruiting spurs (short branches with flower buds) which will be the locations of future fruits.
  7. You can create 3 to 4 horizontal trellises with your fruit tree depending on the size of the wall or structure.

Keeping it Going

It may take 3 to 5 years to get the entire fruit tree structure in place. Your tree, though, should start bearing fruit in a few years. Prune out any developing fruit the first few years. Remove any vertical shoots, suckers, and water sprouts each year and shorten horizontal branches back to create a fruiting spur. You may have to prune 2 to 3 times a year to keep the tree in shape. Because there will be more fruiting spurs produced on a horizontal branch than a vertical branch, eventually you will get a great number of fruits setting on your espaliered apple tree. Be sure to make the wire trellis and supports strong enough to hold the tree laden with fruit in place.

Each year continue pruning to maintain the shape of the espalier, and water and fertilize the tree to keep it healthy. Some old espaliered trees have lateral branches that are so thick they no longer need wire support and can be used to create an espaliered fence. Enjoy your work of art and once you’re comfortable with apples, try other fruits and espaliered designs.

More stories on espalier:

Harvest Organic Fruit in Your Own Backyard
How to Espalier an Apple Tree

How to Espalier Apple Trees

Apples have chilling requirements of 200 to 1,700 hours at a temperature of 32°F to 45°F. If you live in a southern state, however, there are apple varieties available with low winter-chill requirements. There are also varieties with summer heat resistance (See “Popular Varieties” on page 50).

Your choice may also depend on the kind of symmetrical design you’d like your tree to have. While there are many variations, the six basic forms of espalier are “multi-tier cordon,” with its rows of branches growing horizontally; “candelabra,” with its vertical rows of branches growing off a single horizontal; “palmette verrier” with its U-shaped branching pattern; “fan;” with a radiating branching pattern; “informal,” that are more naturally shaped; and “Belgian fence,” several Vshaped espaliers woven together.

The traditional “formal” shapes generally require more attention than the “informal” ones, which grow in shapes that naturally follow the tree’s growing pattern. Basically, the different styles offer design flexibility. Of the formal styles, for instance, the multi-tiered horizontal cordon takes the longest to train, but, once established, lends itself well as a garden-bed divider. A single cordon, grown vertically, horizontally, or even at an angle, is the simplest espalier style and also works well as a divider.

The palmette verrier design, with its horizontally growing branches turning vertical at the ends, or the vertical form of candelabra, are great if you want to plant several trees against a structure without having them grow into one another. The horizontal cordon shape would be an easy match for a McIntosh’s branches, which naturally grow horizontally. A Newtown pippin would be great for a fan shape because of its natural upright branching pattern.

“It’s not imperative to make such matches between the design and tree—it just makes training them that much easier,” says Hooper. “Pick what you like and what’s suitable for your climate, and simply realize that it’s going to take some time to mature.”

Four Steps to Growing an Espaliered Apple Tree

THE ONE-YEAR WHIP: Once you’ve decided on the type of fruit you want based on your climate and the design you favor, select and purchase the youngest tree possible. Look for a one-year “whip,” or relatively unbranched tree, growing from dwarf or semi-dwarf bare-root stock. If space is very much at a premium, use dwarf root stock; if you want a vigorous growing tree, use semi-dwarf. Buy them bare root during the dormant season—which, depending on where you live, can be anywhere from October to late April. Ideally, the earlier you can get a tree planted in the dormant season, the better the roots establish themselves.

Next, prune the whip way back (before or after planting) so it’s only 18″ to 24″ tall. “The trees look like pathetic sticks,” says Hooper, “but it’s the only way to encourage the growth of lower lateral branches.” Nutrients would flow to the top branches if you didn’t cut back the leader and allow an even flow of nutrients throughout the plant. “With espalier, the whole point is to keep the lower branches fruitful and vigorous so that the fruit is strictly within reach of the ground:’ As the tree matures, pruning and maintenance is a snap, which is why it’s often favored by elderly gardeners or people with disabilities.

PLANTING: You’ll treat your bare-root espalier no differently than any other bare root when it comes to planting. Of course, you must give thought to your climate and the best exposure. Apple trees need approximately six hours of daily sunlight (southern or western exposure is best). If your summers are extremely hot, espaliered apple trees may need the shade and cooler temperatures of an east wall or fence.


Deciding what surface to grow your espalier tree against may be as simple as using what you’ve got. Chain-link fences work great, as do wood fences, the walls of your home, and trellises. You can also create your own supportive structure with wire stretched between pipes or wood posts treated with a preservative. Fruit trees trained on post and wire fences will do best if they run from north to south, allowing the western sun to penetrate.

If a trellis is not used, the tree will need to be trained onto a supportive structure of wires. If your espalier is freestanding, use galvanized 12- to 14-gauge wire stretched between 4′ x 4′ posts. The horizontal bars of the trellis or the horizontal wires will be spaced anywhere from 15″ to 18″ apart. If you’d like to emphasize a more skeletal look for your tree, set the wires closer to 18″ apart. Wires will also be used against a fence or wall, threaded through eye screws.

When planting your tree, allow at least 8″ of space between it and a wall or fence to ensure adequate air flow. This also gives the trunk room to grow. Keep in mind that a tree that fills a 4′ x 4′ trellis will ultimately fill an 8′ x 8′ space. Space your apple trees 6′ to 8′ apart. Of course, if your apple variety is not a self-pollinator, you will most likely need to plant more than one of a different variety unless there are other varieties in your immediate neighborhood.

TRAINING: Right from the start, keep the tree tied loosely to the trellis or wires, using plastic ties or plain cord. This enables you to train those branches to grow in the form you want. Now and then, check that the ties are not “choking” the branches. As the tree’s lateral branches begin to grow, you’ll simply give them some guidance.

After the first growing season, when you’ve gotten about 10″ to 12″ of growth on a branch, begin pruning certain branches while allowing others to grow, depending on your design. For most styles, with the exception of the fan and Belgian fence, cut back the young branches leaving only the best three that have grown 4″ to 6″ from the whip. Then bend and train these shoots along the first wire 4″ to 6″. .

As the tree begins to grow, your primary job is to prune unwanted branches as often as necessary to help develop the basic structure. You’ll get used to repeating pruning steps each season and cutting off unwanted lateral branches that will try to grow in a way that does not mesh with your intended design. Every week or so, grab your pruning sheers and head for your espaliered tree.

Again, although your apple tree may bear fruit the first summer, you should not let it mature until the tree’s third growing season. Snip off young fruit when it grows to about cherry size. Most of the tree’s first and second years of growth and vigor need to be focused into root, branch, and leaf production to get it completely established. “It’s hard not to let fruit mature, but it pays tremendous dividends down the road in the third season,” says Hooper.

Even into the third season and thereafter, you’ll have to be strict about how much fruit you allow to grow. After the petals fall, the fruit will form in clusters and, if you leave all this fruit on, you’ll inevitably reap lots of small fruit instead of fewer nice-size ones. “People are shy about thinning the fruit on their trees,” he says, “but you don’t want mature fruit rubbing against each other.”

MAINTENANCE: Hooper grows all of his fruit trees organically. “A lot of what I do is just look at the plants carefully,” he says. “The espalier lends itself perfectly to this because it’s more opened up; you’re more likely to find things on it.” Hooper uses a petroleum-based dormant spray during the winter. In the spring, Safer’s insecticidal soap kills aphids and various other pests.

Be conservative with fertilizer; it is possible to overfeed. Use fish emulsion, blood meal, or blood and bone mix, and a good top dressing around the base of the tree to get it off to a good start. Use a top dressing of fertilizer at the end of your winter season. “You want that nutrient to penetrate the soil by the time the tree comes out of its dormant season in need of a good rush of nutrients,” says Hooper. Later, only feed the tree if it shows obvious signs of deficiency, such as yellowing leaves. In the first season, water regularly as you would any fruit tree, twice a week or more in hot weather. Semi-dwarf and dwarf roots will continue to need regular deep watering.

If you don’t want to wait for your espalier tree to become mature enough for you to harvest fruit or you want the artistic design of the branches now, there is a solution. You can purchase or mail-order espalier trees that have been trained and already have their basic shape. Depending on what the espalier nursery has in stock, almost any apple variety can be shipped during the dormant, bare-root season. You can order a tree that has been trained from one season to six or seven, if you like. Of course, for the die-hard do-it-yourselfers, the very young whips are available as well.

Whether you’ve raised it from a young whip or not, your espaliered fruit tree will be at its prime at five years of age and will offer you the finest of fruits for the following 25 years. In 20 years, that’s a ton of fresh apple pies.

The Six Basic Espalier Styles

Cordon: Most traditional form of espalier. Grows horizontally for a distance, lending itself well as a garden-bed divider. Can be a single cordon, also known as “rope,” or a multicordon, generally with three tiers of branches. The multicordon takes two to three years to reach definition. May take longer on the East Coast because of shorter growing seasons.

Palmetto Verrier: Vertical branching adds nice definition between trees planted against a wall or fence. Horizontally trained branches are gradually trained into upright positions. Design can take up to three years to reach definition. Fan: Suitable for areas requiring vertical coverage; will best cover a square space. Style defines quickly; can have clear definition within one year. Branches angled at 45° can be raised or lowered for greatest fruit yield.

Informal: Tree is allowed to take on a more natural shape; requires simple pruning to keep on a two-dimensional plane. Somewhat easier to train-simply balance the tree’s aesthetic symmetry as the branches begin to grow.

Belgian fence: Lattice effect offers one of the most formal looking styles. Requires three trees or more to create overlapping Vs and two modified Vs to create finished ends. Within one year, the beginning design of overlapping Vs is well outlined.

Candelabra: Also known as “Brooklyn Botanical.” Several vertical branches stem off one horizontal base. Fairly easy to train and maintain.

Popular Varieties of Apple & Their Requirements

McIntosh: Most adaptable to any espalier design; very hardy variety does well in cold climates yet prefers only 600 hours of winter chill; fruits ripen late in the mid-season. Can be self-pollinating, but will be more fruitful if pollinated by different apple variety.

Dorsett Golden: Makes an especially nice oblique design such as a fan; prefers only 400 hours of winter chill; fruit ripens early: self-pollinating.

Anna: Lends itself well to any espalier design; prefers only 400 hours of winter chill; fruit ripens early; requires a pollinator of a different apple variety.

Spitzenberg: Old-fashioned variety; makes very nice palmette verriers, horizontal cordons, and fans. Adaptable to many areas; hardy in cold winter locations despite its low winter chill requirement of 600 hours. Stiffer branches work well as cordon; avoid bending vertically in U-shape or candelabra. Prefers 600 hours or less of winter chill; has good summer heat resistance. Fruit ripens late in season; self pollinating.

Newtown Pippin: Stiffer branches work well as cordon; avoid bending vertically in U-shape or candelabra; prefers 600 hours or less of winter chill; has good summer-heat resistance: fruit ripens late in season; self-pollinating.

How to espalier fruit trees

Winter is a good time to start an espaliered fruit tree. However, some trees adapt better to espalier than others.

Apples and pears are traditionally used, as their branches are flexible and they fruit repeatedly on the same spurs. A small number of apple and pear cultivars are tip-bearing, but spur-bearing varieties are best for espaliering.

Quinces, olives, almonds, crabapples and figs can also be trained.

Tamarillos, although not typically used in espaliers, can be cut low and trained into a fan shape.

Stone fruit (peaches, plums, nectarines and cherries) are best trained into a fan shape as their more brittle wood is difficult to train horizontally.

You can espalier trees against a wall or fence, or create a free-standing living screen or fence between you and your neighbours.

Make a support frame by fixing horizontal wires to a fence or posts using eyebolts.

Use a 2.5mm galvanised high tensile wire and create two or three tiers spaced 30-50cm apart.

Dig a planting hole 30cm from the fence.

To espalier an apple or pear tree, plant it, then prune the tree to the height where you want your first tier (just above the first wire) and where there are several strong buds just below the cut.

Come spring, the buds will shoot.

In summer, train one shoot vertically, one to the left and one to the right. This is easiest done by securing three wooden stakes temporarily to your support frame, one placed vertically behind the central stem, the other two at 45° angles to the left and right of the middle stake.

Don’t bend the young branches completely horizontal at this stage as they’re still tender and may snap. Tie the three shoots to your stakes regularly as they continue to grow over summer using a flexible tie or pantyhose.

Any shoots below these three should be trimmed back to about three leaves.

Remove all forming fruit in the first year to divert the plant’s energies into growth.

Untie the 45° angled side shoots, remove the stakes and gently lower the shoots to a horizontal position. Tie shoots in place, cutting them back by a third.

Cut back the central vertical shoot to just above the next wire on the support frame.

Choose a bud at this height that has two more buds beneath on opposite sides so you can repeat the process.

Remove any excess shoots above and below the first tier of branches. Cut flush with the main stem.

Again, tie three wooden stakes to your support frame, one vertically and two at 45° angles. Train the next tier of shoots along these stakes.

Remove any other shoots, cutting back to about three leaves.

Keep training the horizontal branches of your first tier along the bottom wires. If any side shoots form on these, trim these back to three leaves.

Repeat the process until you’ve achieved the desired number of tiers.

To stop further growth, cut the central stem to just above the last tier of horizontal branches.

Likewise, when your horizontal branches reach the desired length, stop further growth by cutting back the tip.

Each summer, trim back any side shoots that grow from your main stems to three leaves.

The most important thing to remember is to trim your espaliers twice a year, once in winter and again after they’ve finished fruiting in summer.

4 steps to pruning an apple tree

Love this story? Subscribe now!

This article first appeared in NZ Lifestyle Block Magazine. Discuss This Article

Espaliering Made Easy

by Bob Magnus | © 2006 Woodbridge Fruit Trees |

Despite what the gardening media can imply, people who actually do produce their own food or part of it, know it is not a matter of skipping through the flower-dotted lawn to pick a perfect lettuce of a plump peach from a sweet little garden ringed with calendulas. The sweet little garden is more likely to be ringed with wire netting or electronic fencing to keep out the possums, wallabies or rabbits, often with netting over the top to exclude parrots, blackbirds, currawongs and silver-eyes. The feedback I get from friends and customers who buy my fruit trees is that it can be a battle to get trees to fruiting size and then a bigger battle to actually harvest the fruit!

Over the last 20 years I have developed a system whereby we can get most of our apples, pears and berries. It’s a system of growing dwarf fruit trees on espaliers where they are grown in an intensive way and can be easily covered by netting when needed. It’s not an original system, in fact, In Europe because shortage of suitable land and it’s hight cost many, or most orchards are now being grown in this manner.

Thirty years ago most apples and pears were meticulously pruned to vase shapes, often taking seven or eight years to start production. Today the imperative is to get he trees bearing as soon as possible, preferably in their second year, and it is not the amount of fruit per tree that counts, but how much can be obtained per hectare that is important. In short, there has been a revolution in the cultivation techniques of orchards throughout the world. Many purists and nostalgists are very scathing about this development, but it suits very much the needs of many people who live in rural Australia, often with bush close by and lots of wildlife to contend with.

This system firstly depends on growing small trees on wires, known as espaliering. When you mention espaliers to just about any intending fruit growers, they look at you in stunned disbelief and quietly change the subject. There are many very erudite and complex books on this subject in just about every local library and they leave you with a feeling of total disorientation and confusion, but it is not really like that, it’s easy! All you need is a sense of adventure and the willingness to try, and of course the trait that identifies the gardener – patience. After all, what’s another year but four seasons in the garden?

Espaliering Sequence

OK, so down to business. The infrastructure is a trellis, actually three trellises, each ten metres long with post at two metre intervals and two metres tall above the ground.

There are any amount of different materials you can use: treated pine, hard-wood, steel picket-type stakes, old galvanised pipes etc. For the horizontals, you would probably use wire, but my cherries and grapes both have wooden (sawmill off cuts) horizontals and that’s fine.

1.The whole infrastructure should be firm, but it is not necessary to outlay a fortune. When the trees grow, they become quite self-supporting.Two wires are stretched between the uprights to approximately 90cm and 180cm in height.There are systems with lots more wires but I find that two are quite adequate.The little trees are planted in between the posts and cut off below the bottom wire.

2.In the first year, these little trees with suitable attention should put out some good growth like this.That is, if there is no competition from weeds and grasses, no errant whipper-snippers, adequate mulch, fertiliser and water (but not too much!), should put out some good growth like this.

3. All growth except the two strongest shoots is cut away and these are tied down to the bottom of the wire in winter.

4.At the end of the second year, things should look a bit like this.

5.The tips are tied down again ad all growth cut away except the one upright that will grow up to the top wire.

6.In subsequent years, the process is repeated: the tips are tied down and the upright growth cut away.

7.After about five years things should look a bit like this using a 2 wire system. You can use 3 or 4 levels if you wish.

8.When the fruit starts to mature it is easy to cut away the young upright growth on the top row and cover the lot with a net.

The system is very flexible, each tree and each variety has its own vigour. In time the varieties may grow into each other. You just have to watch and observe. If you’re a bit of a shortie, you may prefer to put the bottom wire at 60cm and the top one at 1.5m. If you are really tall, you may go for 1.1m and 2m. I find two metres apart is about the optimum for my dwarf trees, however you could plant them much closer and let them overlap and grow into each other. If you wanted to use normal apples and pears on vigorous understocks, the distance apart and height would have to be much greater generally to compensate for the natural growth habit of much larger trees.

Try three rows, with five trees each. Why? Well, each row represents different ripening times. The first row is of trees ripening in January and February, the second row are mid-season varieties and the third row is for the late ones. Below are lists of varieties that would fit into each category. Again, there is a lot of flexibility here. If you have a huge family and make a lot of cider and pies, you may wish to have a row of 10 earlies, 10 mids and 10 lates. Or if you were a little old couple, maybe two of each would be sufficient. If you keep equal numbers in each row and plant according to ripening, you will only have to buy one net. When you have picked the earlies, move the net on to the late ones. Our nets are 10 years old and should last a good while yet.

Also, this system lends itself perfectly to drip irrigation. Even in the most arid areas you shouldn’t suffer from lack of water. Along the bottom wire 12mm of black polypipe is hooked on and a dripper inserted just above each tree. I find the absolute minimum dripper, say one litre per hour is quite adequate. With an efficient modern filter you can even use grey water and an absolute minimum of pressure is required. Pipes and water lines are off the ground away from mowers and whipper snippers. As the trees grow, the original dripper can be blocked up and two drippers inserted about 30cm away on either side of the main trunk.

So, before you plant your next orchard, think about it! It works well for us and it may do for you.

The Art of Espalier

Jane Edmanson

JANE EDMANSON: This is an espalier. ‘What’s that’ you might well ask? It’s where you espalier a tree or a shrub so that it flattens out. You’re trying to get more growth to grow upwards and across and very little depth – you restrict that depth growth and I’m going to show you all about the art of espalier.

It’s a very, very old technique used in Ancient Roman courtyards and medieval castles where space was restricted, so, it’s a good idea for anyone with small garden, but it’s also decorative and even if you have heaps of space, it’s worth doing.

Chris England has been creating espaliers at his nursery in Melbourne’s south-east for over 25 years.

Well good to see you Chris.

CHRIS ENGLAND: Hi Jane. Thanks for coming to the nursery.

JANE EDMANSON: The nursery has expanded like anything. How many do you grow every year?

CHRIS ENGLAND: Oh we do about 6000 every year – of espaliers. Lots of citrus – lots of oranges, limes and mandarins, but also things like olives as well.

JANE EDMANSON: Yeah? And what about the ornamentals?

CHRIS ENGLAND: Yeah we do things like camellias, star jasmine, bay trees.

JANE EDMANSON: Espaliers are divided into 2 main types – formal and informal.

CHRIS ENGLAND: The easiest espalier to do is an informal espalier.

JANE EDMANSON: And when you say informal, what do you actually mean?

CHRIS ENGLAND: What we’re trying to do is actually fill the whole entire space with branches.

JANE EDMANSON: What sort of structures do you put them on?

CHRIS ENGLAND: We can put them on anything like lattice or concrete reinforcing mesh. All you need is a piece of lattice here which…this just comes up and you put it into your pot and then we turn it around and then we’re going to do some clipping on it and we’re actually going to clip the plant back to the lattice….


CHRIS ENGLAND: ….and it’s just a matter of actually pushing the plants all back into place and keeping it flat.

JANE EDMANSON: Now the idea is that you fan that out against the trellis….


JANE EDMANSON: ….so what about when it looks a bit long?

CHRIS ENGLAND: So what we’re going to do here…now we’re going to curl this around and clip that back…but then we need to pinch the tip out or cut the tip out to make these other buds here, start to grow.

JANE EDMANSON: Oh I see….I can see a big fat bud there and they will actually grow out so you get more coming up?

CHRIS ENGLAND: Yeah, so in spring, these’ll grow and then we’ll turn them back other ways to try and fill the whole lattice.

JANE EDMANSON: Excellent. Oh, you’re a ripper clipper Chris!


JANE EDMANSON: It does look good.

CHRIS ENGLAND: Yeah it’s good.

JANE EDMANSON: Next, the formal espaliers. These are as much sculpture as they are horticulture.

CHRIS ENGLAND: Now this is an espaliered gardenia and what we’ve done here, we’ve formed it into a diamond shape, so we’ve got 2 sort of main branches on the outside of the diamond and then we’ve formed 2 sub-branches going in the middle, but crossing over and what we’re trying to do is keeping these middle sort of clear.

JANE EDMANSON: And this is another one I can see – another diamond shape.

CHRIS ENGLAND: It’s another diamond shape. What we’ve done, we’ve put 2 apples in….


CHRIS ENGLAND: …crossed them over here and bought them up and then again, crossed them over and the sub-branches, to make that sort of pattern.

JANE EDMANSON: And you could do another diamond using these 2 side branches….

CHRIS ENGLAND: ….as they go up higher.

JANE EDMANSON: And the 2 – obviously, for pollination?

CHRIS ENGLAND: Yes, to help cross pollinate so you get more fruit.

JANE EDMANSON: And this one is very arty.

CHRIS ENGLAND: Yeah this is s bit of an interest. It’s a bit of a sculpture…a bit of architecture. It’s a serpentine shape, so again, we’re bringing the branches – training the branches – up and around and it’s a dwarf apple tree so it’s actually not going to get right to the top.

JANE EDMANSON: And this one looks like a fig tree.

CHRIS ENGLAND: Again, it is a fig tree – it’s a horizontal cordon, so a central stem and horizontal branches running across, about every 30 or 40 centimetres.

JANE EDMANSON: That looks sensational.

Now these are in pots – you can keep them in pots – or grow them in the garden?

CHRIS ENGLAND: Yes, you can do both as well – so come over here Jane and I’ll show you how to make a cordon.

JANE EDMANSON: Well here’s an apple tree raring to go.

CHRIS ENGLAND: Yeah, so first, we’re going to train this central arm – central stem – back to a bamboo stake that’s vertical to train that central arm and then we’re going to train the bottom branches along the wire – so every 30 or 40 centimetres – so that’s going to be your first sort of arm and then we’re going to go to the next side.


CHRIS ENGLAND: And then we go the gap between here – and train the next arms into that spot.


CHRIS ENGLAND: Now I want to remove these unwanted branches between the gap and then we’re going to leave anything that’s shorter ….so we’ve got these buds that are a lot bigger and more prominent than these smaller little leaf buds….we’re going to leave these cause they’re the fruit buds and fruit spurs.

JANE EDMANSON: And that’s what an apple is…what you need. Ok.

CHRIS ENGLAND: Yes…and we come across to this side over here…we’ve got a branch which is unwanted. We’re going to cut to about 1 or 2 buds to form a fruit bud again.


CHRIS ENGLAND: So next step, we’re going to cut a branch that’s 60 centimetres from the main stem, along the branch, then we’re going to cut to a bud that’s on the underside of the branch.


CHRIS ENGLAND: Because then the branch will continue along the wire…it won’t grow above the wire.


CHRIS ENGLAND: And we’re going up to the next layer…we’re going to cut again to an underbud. Lastly, all we need to do is cut to a bud that’s above the wire and that’s going to continue to grow above the wire and then the two buds below the wire are going to grow, but we’re going to train them along the wire to form the next layer and it’s all done.

JANE EDMANSON: That’s fantastic. It looks a very fine structure.

So, it’s not difficult to start an espalier, but then maintenance is most important.

CHRIS ENGLAND: I think the best tip Jane is to maintain and shape your espalier in spring and summer cause that’s when it’s actually growing the most.

JANE EDMANSON: And what if gets too big?

CHRIS ENGLAND: If you do need to re-shape or cut back your espalier, still try and do that in summer cause if you do it in winter, you’re just going to get too much excess growth.

JANE EDMANSON: I see. Well you really grow a nice plant. Thanks for having us.

CHRIS ENGLAND: Oh, it’s been a pleasure.

Fan Espalier

This espalier system is possibly the most versatile to learn as it can be applied where the horizontal cordon espalier cannot ie – apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines, and berry bushes such as blueberries, gogi, currants, citrus and many others.

The espalier fence is setup using horizontal wires, with 3-5 wires. Also a lattice or mesh can be used. The spacing of the wire is not critical, but placing a wire below the main branch level will not be used. Have some bamboo stakes available to act as splints.

We’ll use this simple espalier for this example.
Most new growth is vertical, ie up to the sky. In this system, we need to bend down the branches and fix them onto the rigid espalier trellis. The best way to do this is to fix the branch to a sturdy bamboo stake (5-10mm diameter) at minimum three points along the length of the branch. This will allow you to bed the branch and fix the bamboo (not the branch) to the espalier wire. Sometimes branches need to be bent only part of the way to their new position to avoid snapping the branch. After 3-4 weeks, they can be bent further will less risk of breakage.

Step-by-step instructions to train a Fan Espalier.

1. Plant your tree. If your tree is a single stick (a “whip”). If the tree you are planting has two or more branches, see the notes below.

2. Prune to where branching will begin. This will be usually 30-40cm above the ground. Take care to note where the graft is.

3. (Year 1) After one growing season, prune to 2 leaders. This can be done in early Autumn, or in winter. Tie the two leaders to bamboo poles in three places and bending down form a shallow “V”. Perhaps bend out in stages over 3-4 weeks to avoid snapping the branch.

4. (Year 2) Growth usually occurs vertically, so expect shoots to form along these two angled leadeds (see picture below left). The growth at the tip of the outer leaders can be bent down and attached onto the bamboo splints to lengthen these. Do this in late summer after the growing has slowed. Select two of the central leaders and attach bamboo splints to them, preferably in at least 3 positions along the shoot. Cut the remaining vertical shoots to 2-3 buds. There will be room now to bend the two selected leaders outwards, again be wary of snapping. In the example image (below right), only one leader (right) has been bent out. The left one will grow for next year. The outermost leaders can be bent lower a this stage, almost to horizontal, to make room for more leaders.

5. (Year 3) There will be more vertical growth. Repeat the process of bending down the vertical shoots at the end of the existing leaders to extend them, or prune these back if the tree is getting too wide. Bend the existing leaders a little further outwards to make room for the new leaders. Select two more leaders from those close to the centre of the tree, attach bamboo to them. Prune off other leaders and small branches that branch off further out. Leaving 5cm of these branches or 2-3 buds, will form fruiting spurs. Bend the two new leaders outwards being careful to not snap them by doing it in stages if necessary.

6. (subsequent years) repeat as in step 5. A usual fan shape can fit 6-7 leaders. However, 10-20 or more leaders are possible, requiring diligent and repeated pruning. After some years, the repeated pruning to 3 buds from the shoot can form a cluster of small branches. These need to be thinned out if they get too cluttered allowing new spurs to develop, as well as removing dead wood.

Variations in Planting

The tree that’s being planted may already be branching. If the height of the branching is suitable, then one can skip a step and already form a shallow “V”. Should the branching be lower down (20cm from ground) or higher up (eg 1m high) it’s preferable to prune the branch off flush rather than start with something that is not ideal.
If the tree has already got 3 or more branches, it would be tempting to just tie them out into a fan shape. Unfortunately this doesn’t work so well, as the central leaders dominating and the outer leaders staying weak. Instead, pune to two branches and allow these to become established.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *