- Espalier Pear Tree Maintenance: How To Espalier A Pear Tree
- Growing Espalier Pear Trees
- How to Espalier a Pear Tree
- Espalier Pear Tree Maintenance
- Espalier pruning of apple trees and pear trees
- Examples of apple and pear trees in espalier patterns
- Learn more about espalier training
- Espaliered Fruit Trees
- Espalier and Fan-trained fruit trees for sale
- (1) Pot-grown 2-year Espalier and Fan-trained fruit trees
- (2) Train your own
- Spacings for trained fruit trees
- High espaliers and pleached trees
- Aesthetics of trained fruit trees
- The finished result
- How to Espalier Fruit Trees
- The origins of espalier
- Which fruit trees espalier best?
- Where to Plant Your Espaliered Tree
- How to Create a Classic Three-Tier Cordon
- How and When to Prune Your Espaliered Fruit Tree
- Watering and fertilizing espaliered trees
- View Stark Bro’s Pinterest Board: Fruit Tree Espalier “
- Grow Espaliered Trees for a Slim Fit
- The Origins of Espalier
- How Does Espalier Work?
- What Are The Best Fruit Trees To Espalier?
- A Beginner’s Guide To Espalier Fruit Trees
Espalier Pear Tree Maintenance: How To Espalier A Pear Tree
An espaliered tree is a flattened tree grown alone one plane. By careful pruning and training, you can espalier a pear tree along the wires of a trellis. This classic garden focal point also maximizes your garden space. Read on for information on how to espalier a pear tree.
Growing Espalier Pear Trees
You can espalier a pear tree along a wall or fence, or else along a walkway. In either case, you’ll need to first plant the tree. Pick among pear trees suitable for espalier.
One of the popular pear trees suitable for espalier is the Kieffer pear (Pyrus ‘Kieffer’). This cultivar grows fast and vigorously and doesn’t require pollinators. It generally starts producing fruit at two years old. Kieffer pears rank high among pear trees suitable for espalier because they are very resistant to disease and can be grown in chillier temperatures, down to U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone 4.
Other good pear cultivars to try for espalier are:
- ‘Red Sensation Bartlett’
- ‘Harrow’s Delight’
How to Espalier a Pear Tree
you are growing espalier pear trees along a wall or fence, plant your trees some 6 to 10 inches from the structure. For growing espalier pear trees along a walkway, construct a frame trellis and install it at the same time as the tree. Only trees that are one or two years old can be espaliered.
Typically, when you start growing espalier pear trees, you train the tree branches along the wires of a trellis. You can select among various espalier designs, including the single vertical cordon, the single horizontal cordon, the verrier candelabra and the drapeau marchand.
Build the first level of the trellis before you plant the tree. All that you need for the first few years of pear tree growth are the lower horizontal and inner vertical components of the trellis. You tie the flexible young branches of the young tree to the trellis wires.
You can erect higher features of the trellis as time passes. Once the lower branches are trained, start training the upper, inner branches. You’ll probably have to wait about a decade for the espaliered tree to reach its mature size.
Espalier Pear Tree Maintenance
The first year, while the tree is dormant, cut off the top of the tree several inches above the point you want your first tier of lateral branches. When small branch buds swell along the tree’s main leader, remove all except the half dozen closest to your first tier wire.
Pick the two branches closest to the guide wires to become the first horizontal tier. Pick the bud with the most vertical growth to be the new leader. This will, in time, become the second tier of branches. Remove the other three once you are certain these are established. As the selected branches grow, tie them to the wires every six inches.
You have to keep up with espalier pear tree maintenance to keep your tree looking tidy. Prune back side shoots to about 6 inches on a monthly basis during the growing season. If you prune too short, you will have less fruit.
Pruning apple and pear trees to espalier or palmette is an interesting way to raise fruit productivity for apples and pears, and also to cover a wall.
Pruning following an espalier silhouette is easy, but it requires careful attention and regular follow-up to guide your apple tree and pear tree accordingly.
- View also: pruning apple and pear trees
Espalier pruning of apple trees and pear trees
Here, in a video, you’ll find all the tips on how to prune and shape an apple or pear tree into an espalier shape.
We actually went over to the Valloires Abbey Gardens and talked to the Master gardener there. He opened up his secrets on how to grow trees into an espalier shape.
- View also: pruning apple and pear trees
Examples of apple and pear trees in espalier patterns
These images share examples of apple or pear trees pruned in an espalier shape. Each particular type of espalier has a name which often draws back to the far past.
To train each, usually a square grid lattice must be set up and attached to the wall or to strong posts. String thick wire to mark out the “pattern” and tether new growth to the wire.
This resembles a “fishbone”.
- From a single vertical stem, shoots are trained out at an angle.
- Each branch runs parallel to the other.
- With palmette pruning, space is freed around the base of the tree for low-lying interstitial crops like vegetables, short flower shrubs, or ornamental flowers.
Learn more about espalier training
The word “espalier” itself originates from old French, which previously had taken it from Italian “espalliera”. Going further back, the Italian word came from “spalla” which meant “shoulder”, from the Latin root “spatula” which was how the shoulder blade bone was called. Indeed, this type of pruning is only on a single plane. The overall shape of the tree looks like that curious flat bone!
Usually these forms are trained along a wall to which a lattice or treillis was affixed for easy tying. This made it possible to maximize yields in tiny, often urban gardens. It also made double use of walls and fences to reflect extra light and warmth on the trees.
But it’s also seen in open fields, where it makes it possible for motorized tractors to weave between rows of trees. This facilitates harvesting, weeding, and other mechanical tasks.
Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Palmette apple tree by KVDP under Public Domain
Espaliered Fruit Trees
Espalier fruit trees are a great way to save space and have
fresh home-grown fruit too!
First a few things you should know
- All espalier forms need a strong structure for support and training while they are young. Once the branches are thicker the structure can sometimes be removed.
- Branches that grow horizontally produce more fruit. An espalier tree may not produce as much fruit as a 3-D tree, but it still produces a lot.
- Pruning at least twice a year is part of the deal. It may sound daunting, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be fine. Espalier are smaller, but definitely not more hands-off, than regular fruit trees.
- Most fruit trees require a lot of care. Be prepared to apply dormant spray once or twice during winter as a preventative measure, to keep an eye out for pest and disease issues, and to treat them. Many organic solutions for treatment are available.
Fruit trees can be trained into many different designs.
To train fruit trees into these forms you would need to start with very young, unbranched trees called whips. While Portland Nursery stocks small fig trees, the other fruit trees we sell are more mature. The Home Orchard Society is a good resource for finding starts or to learn to graft your own.
Espalier and Fan-trained fruit trees for sale
If you are interested in trained fruit trees we offer several options:
- Pot-grown espalier and fan-trained trees – with 2 tiers or 3 arms already in place, these provide instant impact
- Advice on how to grow your own trained trees from first principles
(1) Pot-grown 2-year Espalier and Fan-trained fruit trees
We have a small range of 2-year old container-grown trained trees. The range consists of:
- Espalier apple trees
- Espalier pear trees
- Fan-trained apple trees
- Fan-trained pear trees
- Fan-trained plum trees
- Fan-trained cherry trees
These trees have been pre-trained at our nursery so that you can get an immediate effect in your garden.
Click here for availability of 2-year espalier-trained apple and pear trees.
Click here for availability of 2-year fan-trained fruit trees.
Unfortunately these 2-year trained trees can only be delivered to certain parts of mainland of England, Wales and southern Scotland. You are welcome to contact us by phone or email to discuss your requirements before ordering.
These trees are usually supplied on a small pallet and you must arrange to have someone present to receive the delivery.
(2) Train your own
A further option is that you can train your own trees from first principles. This gives you the maximum flexibility in terms of choice of variety and rootstock, but will take a bit longer to achieve results. It is definitely the best solution if you have slightly unusual requirements, such as needing branches at specific heights or wanting to train the tree in a specific shape or a specific rootstock.
The starting point is a 1-year bare-root tree on a suitable rootstock, which is then cut back to begin the fan or espalier training process. We can advise on the best choice of variety and rootstock depending on what you want to achieve.
More details about how to train your own fruit trees. We also recommend the RHS Pruning and Training book by Brickell and Joyce, which gives detailed instructions on fan and espalier training.
IMPORTANT: When choosing a rootstock for your trained tree, you will nearly always need a more vigorous rootstock than you might think. This is because, as a result of the espalier / fan training process, a trained tree will not reach the same mature height as a free-standing tree would. For most trained fruit tree projects where you have a typical 6ft / 1.7m fence you will probably need to use a semi-vigorous rootstock – MM106 for apples, St. Julien for plums, Colt for cherries, and Quince A for pears. You are welcome to contact us if you need further advice.
Spacings for trained fruit trees
A typical fan-trained fruit tree on a semi-vigorous rootstock will need a width of 3m – 4m / 10ft – 14ft and a height of 2m – 3.5m / 6ft – 12ft. The dimensions will vary dependent on the vigour of the particular variety you are planting. Plums and cherries will be at the upper end of this scale, while less vigorous apple varieties might be at the lower end of this scale.
Espalier-trained trees on semi-vigorous rootstocks will need a width of roughly 3m – 3.5m / 10ft – 12ft and a height of 1.75m – 2m / 5ft – 7ft per tree, but these dimensions are only approximate and actual height and spread could vary considerably depending on your local conditions and how you prune the tree.
Remember that the mature size of the tree will be greatly affected by the planting situation, and local soil and climate. Trees on north-facing walls will not get as big as those on south-facing walls.
You also have some control of the height vs width, in that you can train the tree as it grows to fit the dimensions you have available. Individual espaliers tend to look more pleasing if the width is greater than the height, whereas fans will work with various proportions of width and height.
Our espalier-trained trees have arms at roughly 50cm and 100cm with potential for further tiers above that. We recommend that you do not put your wire supports in place until you have planted the trees, so that you can match the positions to the tiers. However if the wires are already in place it is usually quite easy to bend the branches up or down a bit to fit.
Our fan-trained trees are usually supplied with the central leader still intact where possible, as this allows you to choose whether to continue the tree as a ‘Y’ fan or as a palmette fan. In the former case you can remove the central leader altogether, leaving just the lowest tier of branches. In the latter case we recommend you cut the leader back to a point where you have sufficient branches for the fan – but do make sure you cut it back rather than leaving it in place.
If training your own you have much more flexibility to set the heights to meet your requirements, and you can use different rootstocks to achieve different overall dimensions. In general when growing trained fruit trees it is better to use a more vigorous rootstocks than you think you might need, rather than a less vigorous one.
High espaliers and pleached trees
We are often asked if it is possible to grow a “high” espalier, with the first tier of branches starting higher up the stem, e.g. 1m to clear a low wall or 2m to create a dramatic effect. The answer is yes, but these have to be trained from first principles, starting with a 1 year tree. Usually a more vigorous rootstock will be required to help get the required height.
An alternative approach is to start with a 2-year half-standard tree, which will have branches starting at roughly 90cm. You can remove branches facing forwards and backwards, and use those facing left and right as the basis of training a new pleached tree.
Aesthetics of trained fruit trees
One of the reasons for growing trained fruit trees is to add a formal structural element to the garden, whilst enjoying the benefit of home-grown fruit production. If this is a factor in your garden design, bear in mind the following points:
- If you want a very formal effect then choose espalier-trained trees, as the 90-degree angles between the stem and the branches create an attractive regimented appearance, compared with the more variable angles of fan-trained trees.
- Conversely for a flowing semi-formal effect, choose a fan-trained tree. (Fan-trained trees are also a bit easier to maintain, and a bit more forgiving of pruning errors).
- Whilst a single trained tree will look impressive, a more dramatic effect is achieved if you plant several (3 or more) together.
- When planting several trained trees together, you will get a more regular effect if you choose trees of the same variety – although of course this means you will have a glut of fruit all at once. If you prefer to have a bit more choice, you can still get a nice formal effect by alternating two or three varieties in a row of four or six trees. This means you will have more choice of fruit through the season, and probably better pollination in the spring.
- Similarly, it is often best to choose varieties of the same species – in other words plant all pears, or all apples, or all plums. This will give you a much more consistent effect than if you mix and match species. There is quite a noticeable difference in the way that plums / cherries / peaches / apricots grow, compared with apples / pears, so a trained apple tree beside a trained plum tree might look a bit odd.
- Remember that whilst apples and pears can be trained as either fans or espaliers, stone fruits can only be trained as fans.
The finished result
Here is a mature fan-trained plum tree with the central leader retained. Note how it has has been bent in a zig-zag pattern to encourage the tree to direct growth into the arms of the fan.
Photo courtesy of Keir Watson – see his blog for more examples of trained fruit trees, including photos of trained fruit trees at West Dean Gardens.
Don’t be put off by the fancy French word! People think that the process of Espaliering a tree is for horticultural Houdinis, when in fact anyone can muck around with the secateurs (there’s another French word!) and shape a tree or shrub into an Espalier. So get in touch with your inner Frenchie, and give it a go!
What you want to achieve is the creation of a “two-dimensional” or single-plane pattern made by the branches of the tree. The technique was popular in the Middle Ages in Europe to produce fruit inside the walls of a typical castle courtyard – where space was limited – and to decorate solid walls. Evidence exists suggesting that the technique dates back even further, perhaps to ancient Egypt. I wonder if Cleopatra espaliered in her spare time, when she wasn’t seducing some hot Pharaoh or other.
The word ‘espalier’ initially referred to the actual trellis on which the plant was trained to grow, but over time has come to be used to describe the technique.
An espalier collects almost as much sunlight as a regular tree, yet has far less mass. It can also be planted next to a wall, which will reflect more sunlight and retain heat overnight, or be planted so that they are facing North and can absorb maximum sunlight. These two facts allow an espalier to succeed in cooler climates, where a non-espaliered tree of the same variety would fail. They also mature their fruit more quickly.
Today, espaliered trees, ornamental and fruit producing, are grown not only against walls, but free-standing on wires, both to save space and to create screens as well. So the notion that a lot of space is required to grow fruit is no longer valid. And remember, you do not require any special skills to espalier trees, as this comes with experience. Today, espalier has evolved from a space-saving technique into an art form.
What types of fruit trees can be Espaliered?
Almost any variety of apple, pear or fig is suitable for espalier. Stone fruit (peaches, plums and cherries) are best suited to the fan-shaped espalier as their more brittle wood is difficult to train on the horizontal lines.
Locating your Espalier trees
All fruit trees require a sunny site sheltered from wind If your region is prone to spring frosts, adequate air circulation around the tree is necessary. They can be grown along walls and fences but beware of north facing iron fences as the heat reflected from these may scorch the tree.
If you do not have a wall they can be grown along a free standing fence strung with wires supported by sturdy posts which should be placed about 4-5 m apart and 2m of post above ground. 4 – 5 wires should be tightly strung between posts, with the first wire 50cm above the ground and the others at 30cm intervals. Use soft materials such as hessian, rubber, nylon stockings to tie the branches to the wires. Do not tie with wire as this can damage the branches.
Types of Espalier
There are several types of espalier, including Standard (branches grow horizontally out of one central trunk), Palmette (branches grow in a fan shaped pattern), and Cordon (the tree resembles a Candelabra). A Belgian Fence is a form of espalier that weaves a row of espaliers into a fence. There are other more elaborate shapes that are variations on the above. Each espalier pattern requires different training, but in general the light pruning and shaping is done in the autumn, the heavy pruning in the winter and the training in the summer when growth is at its peak.
Standard Espalier Training techniques
One year old trees are best, and the ideal is that they should be unbranched. If only branched trees are available, retain the straightest leader and cut away the rest. After planting, the central leader is reduced to 5 cm below the first wire and when growth occurs, only the top 3 shoots should be allowed to grow. The top shoot is then tied to an upright cane that is secured to the wires. The 2 side shoots will become the 2 lowest branches. Tie side shoots to canes at an angle of about 45 so the laterals maintain their strength of growth while training is started.
In late autumn remove the supporting canes and tie the branches to the horizontal wires. With the central stem again cut back to about 5 cm below the second wire to train the next tier. Continue every season until the tree reaches the top wire when you only retain 2 buds to tie down.
Fan Espalier training techniques
For stone fruit, the central leader is cut out, leaving 2 vigorous side shoots which are trained outwards at 30 – 45 degree angles to encourage branching. As they fruit only on 1 year old wood, there must be a continual renewal of growth to carry fruit. Fruit the lateral one year, and after harvest shorten to a side shoot near the base.
Cordon Espalier training techniques
Again 1 year old unbranched trees are best with side shoots shortened to 3 buds. If only branched trees are available, se1ect the straightest leader, cut the remaining leaders right back. Plant at the angle intended for training. In Summer, prune strong lateral shoots longer than 30 cm, cut back to 4-5 buds. In winter, prune according to growth, but leave laterals up to 10 cm uncut. Laterals 10-20 cm long should be left uncut in year 1 and the following winter shortened back to a bud on 2 year old wood. This is done to encourage year old laterals to develop fruit buds. Laterals longer than 20 cm can either be cut to 3 buds or tied down so that the tips are below the horizontal to encourage fruit buds on laterals. Following winter untie and shorten to 15 cm.
Belgian Fence Espalier training techniques
This pattern will form a very dense screen and is best used in a free standing situation. To create this, several plants are spaced 45-60cm apart. After planting, prune and train as for a horizontal cordon. When the lateral shoots form, train them at opposite 45 degree angles so that laterals from neighboring plants cross to form a diamond pattern. A plant that has been espaliered correctly is a beautiful asset to any garden or wall. It is a perfect solution for small-inner city gardens.
Once your espaliered fruit trees have been established it will require less pruning and more support as the fruit grows heavier. And you will be regarded as an Artiste!
826 Gordonton Road, R D 1, Hamilton 3281 Ph: (07) 824 3430 Email: Open 7 days 8:30am-5pm
How to Espalier Fruit Trees
The art of espalier is all about selectively pruning and training to a desired shape. Follow these steps and learn how to espalier fruit trees.
The origins of espalier
Espalier is the ancient horticultural art of pruning and training a tree or shrub to grow flat against a support, creating a living sculpture. According to American Garden History, espalier was originally used to create outdoor “walls” in Europe during the Middle Ages and was also planted in interior courtyard walls to prevent late frost bud-kill. Other records show this technique dates back to ancient Egypt, where hieroglyphs of espaliered fig trees have been found in tombs dating back to 1400 B.C. The French word “espalier” (ess-PAL-yay) was originally a noun that referred to the trellis or support upon which the tree was grown; today, it refers to the technique itself. Why espalier? Well, there really isn’t a reason not to try espalier. Just a few of the benefits include:
- Homegrown fruit from a narrow space
- Very easy picking, no ladder needed
- A striking bit of garden artistry that will have your neighbors talking
Which fruit trees espalier best?
Apple and pear are the usual choices. Apple trees are a little easier because new stems don’t harden as quickly as pear trees, and are therefore a little more forgiving when you go to bend them toward your support wires. Peaches and pomegranates also espalier well. You can try your hand at espaliering any variety of fruit tree, as long as the fruit tree suits your climate, but dwarf or semi-dwarf trees are best for small spaces. Since apple trees are a common choice for espalier, note that spur-bearing apple trees are even better if you want more fruit from your living fence. And, if you’re only planting one tree, make sure it’s a self-pollinating variety like Stark® Jon-A-Red Jonathan apple or Starkspur® Golden Delicious apple so you’re sure to get fruit. You can espalier peach trees as seen in this example from D. Reyné!
Where to Plant Your Espaliered Tree
Location is key. You will need about 8 feet of linear space in a well-drained spot that gets full sun. Full sun means the tree will receive at least six hours of light per day. Espaliered trees can be grown:
- Against a wall (usually brick or stucco)
- Along a fence, trellis or pergola
- Across a set of sturdy free-standing posts and horizontal wires (as many wine grapes are grown)
How to Create a Classic Three-Tier Cordon
As we mentioned earlier, apple trees are easy to train to espalier, so we’ll use apple trees in this example. There are four basic espalier forms (see diagram) but for purposes of this example, we’ll describe how to form the three-tier horizontal cordon. The three-tier cordon is quite a simple technique; it just requires a little know-how and a few years of patience as the trees grow into it. You will need:
- Your chosen apple tree: bare-root, any height (unbranched whips are ideal)
- Wire cutter
- 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 total)
- 3/16″ eye bolts (use 3-16″ wall mounts on masonry)
- Choose your location (see tips above).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Backfill the hole with the soil/compost mixture and water in well.
- Attach the trunk to the vertical wire, somewhere below the first-tier horizontal wire, with a stretchy plant tie to avoid bark damage.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
Some examples of fruit trees trained to tiered, horizontal cordons:
How and When to Prune Your Espaliered Fruit Tree
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. ” Looking for more information on pruning espaliered fruit trees? Our Pruning Made Easy book provides instructions and tips on how to achieve a successful espalier design.
Watering and fertilizing espaliered trees
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!
View Stark Bro’s Pinterest Board: Fruit Tree Espalier “
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Grow Espaliered Trees for a Slim Fit
Plant Arms Outreached
Photo by Lynn Keddie/GAP Photos
It might seem strange to back a tree up against a wall, smooth it flat, and persuade its branches to spread sideways. But the art of espalier—growing trees or shrubs in two dimensions—is a time-honored fix for the space-challenged garden.
Do you dream of apples on a pint-size lot? Yearn to camouflage your garage wall or draw a line between your outdoor living and dining spots? Espalier (pronounced ess-PAL-yer and derived from an Italian term for support) lets you tuck fruit where it otherwise wouldn’t fit, swap an eyesore for a flower-bedecked focal point, or divide large areas into smaller ones with graceful, lacy screens. The practice dates back to medieval times, when it allowed the cloistered residents of warring cities to feed themselves without venturing beyond the safety of their walled compounds. In America, it arrived with the colonial era: George Washington, for example, espaliered pears and apples at his Mt. Vernon home.
Shown: This tree’s pink-blossom-covered limbs are pruned to grow horizontally, against a stone wall. With apple and pear trees, a masonry backing helps retain heat, encouraging fruit to ripen faster.
Extra Growth Boost
Photo by Mark Turner
Formally patterned or spreading freely, espalier still often relies on walls, making use of their reflected heat to boost the yield of fruit trees and speed the ripening of the harvest, especially in climate zones that are borderline for growing fruit. But an espalier also may itself create a wall or a living fence, with the help of stout poles strung at measured intervals with wires. One common pattern, the horizontal cordon, features evenly spaced branches spreading in lines from a central trunk. The palmette verger resembles a candelabra, and the Belgian fence, a leafy, crosshatched lattice.
Shown: Planted in multiples and supported by rows of wire anchored to widely spaced poles, pear- and apple-tree cordon espaliers can serve as a living fence that also yields an orchard-like harvest.
Photo by Dale Horchner
The form, and even the plant, you choose depends on your objectives, your garden’s site conditions, and your level of patience for the pruning and training that an espalier requires. Dwarf pear and apple trees, which work well for formal shapes, need at least 6 hours of sun a day and a careful hand to avoid lopping off the thickened growths, called spurs, from which fruit develops. Certain ornamentals with flexible branches—flowering camellias and pyracantha, to name two—not only may thrive in shadier spots but also lend themselves to looser, free-form designs more forgiving of mistakes. At its most basic, an espalier may consist of vines, such as ivy or wisteria, that are tied up and coaxed to grow in particular patterns or directions.
Shown: This tree is trained into a fan shape.
Trees Ripe for Training
Photo by Mark Turner
While a tree presents a somewhat greater challenge, you can take a shortcut by purchasing espalier starts at a nursery. Already shaped and trained on trellising, these can be planted in a chosen spot and their forms simply extended and maintained as they develop.
Shown: A pear tree trained horizontally, in a cordon espalier, places fruit where it’s easy to pick.
Maintaining The Pattern
Photo by Leigh Clapp/GAP Photos
It isn’t hard, though, to start your own espalier. The principle is simple. Plants grow from a central stem, known as a leader. If you snip the leader, shoots emerge from buds on the stem’s sides, below the snip, and from the top. The best two side shoots you choose will be the ones you guide to create the boughs of your stylized tree by attaching them to wall hooks or wires; the topmost shoot becomes the new leader and, eventually, the trunk. As the pattern emerges, maintenance is merely a matter of pruning away growth that detracts from your desired shape and keeping the plant low enough for easy tending.
Shown: Camellia branches create a leafy crisscross design. Pyracantha, jasmine, and flowering quince are other good choices for this type of espalier.
Plant Pattern Play
Photo by Jerry Pavia
Whatever your goals, shop at a quality local nursery for plants suited to your climate. If you want apples in Southern California, for instance, you should choose varieties that have lower chilling requirements than varieties suited for northern New York. For fruiting trees, look for robust, mostly unbranched 1-gallon plants called whips. For ornamentals, the main criteria, besides a malleable, easy-to-train habit, are seasonal interest (flowers, berries, foliage color) and compatibility with your chosen planting location. Suitable picks include forsythia, magnolia, flowering quince, and photinia.
Shown: The candelabra, or palmette verger, is one of several traditional forms of espalier.
Choosing The Espalier Setup
Photo by Gay Bumgarner/Alamy
Before planting, make a scale drawing of your design on paper so that you can space trees properly and refer back to your plan at pruning time. A sketch will also help you decide how to realize your design—with a wood- lattice frame or a grid of wires for support, perhaps—which will dictate the construction materials you need. If you’re working with a wall and hope to capture extra warmth for fruit, pick one that faces south or east.
Shown: On a backyard patio, a planter box with a trellis is an accessible setup for training an espaliered tree. Simply tie the plant’s branches directly to the wood slats as they grow and spread, using jute twine or some other soft, flexible type of plant tie.
Piece of Garden Art
Photo by John Granen
Once your initial guiding lines are in place, dig holes so that the trunk will be about 6 inches from your wall to allow the plants air circulation, and prep the soil as you would normally, adding organic compost and setting plants at the same depth they occupied in their containers. Clip the tops to about 18 inches, and as new growth appears, preserve the best side shoots and the chosen leader and snip the rest. When branches are about a foot long, tie them loosely to wires or eyebolts using twine or another material that won’t dig into soft stem tissue. Prune annually, referring to your sketch for shaping, in late winter or early spring, before active growing starts; continue to tie out branches as they develop, loosening old ties so that they don’t girdle the branches. Generally, it takes three to four years of pruning to complete the shape of an espalier and, from then on, selective clipping to keep it crisp.
Your reward for this careful collaboration with nature? A lasting piece of garden art, one that’s brightened with flowers, frilled with foliage, or laden each year with fruit that’s never out of reach.
Shown: Rosy red apples can embellish a simple privacy fence as long as there are anchors on which to tether the branches.
How to Attach Supports to a Masonry Wall
Illustration by Jason Schneider
While espalier shoots can be tied directly to wood lattice, creating a support system on a brick, block, or stone wall requires a little work up front. First, use chalk to sketch the pattern you want for the espaliered tree or shrub directly onto the masonry surface. This will help you figure out where to place the supports. Then, using a masonry bit, drill holes on the pattern lines every 18 inches or so. These are for 2-inch expansion shields, which will anchor eyebolts into the masonry. Clean out the holes, insert the shields, and screw in eyebolts that are long enough to create a 4- to 6-inch air space between the eyes and the masonry. Finally, secure 12- or 14-gauge wire between the eyebolts for tethering the espalier’s branches.
Have you ever wanted to grow fruit, but didn’t want to give up space in the yard for one of those heirloom apple trees? Even a crab apple might be too large? Then you will want to know about espalier fruit trees and how they’re grown!
This old technique has been used on grape vines, fruit and flowering trees, and even large shrubs.
Pronounced “ess-PAUL-yay”, the term originates with the French word “aspau”, meaning “a prop”, referencing the trellis that supports branches. It may also have been partially derived from the Italian term “spalliera”, which means “something to lean the shoulder against”.
Espalier has been used to create low walls, lattice-pattern foliage, and best of all, flat-growing fruit trees that can live along a fenceline. It can take many years of training a tree or shrub to create the effect that you’re aiming for, but it’s so rewarding once it takes shape.
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The Origins of Espalier
Fragments of “The Mystic Capture Of The Unicorn” tapestry, showing early espalier. Source: Public Domain
It’s hard to place the exact time and place where the artform of espalier first developed. Ornamental gardening was common throughout the middle ages, including topiary art. However, espalier fruit trees and other forms became widespread at some point during the Renaissance.
When we look at tapestries from the period, there are some examples of early espalier shown in them. They’re not universally spread through tapestries or paintings from that time, but they’re visually becoming part of the formal garden culture.
One of the best known examples is in the tapestry fragments of “The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn”, where espalier fruit trees are shown around the enclosed garden. The tapestry, part of the well known Unicorn Tapestries, is estimated to have been made between 1400-1600.
Originally, espalier was a reference to trees that were grown against walls. The heat of the walls would provide warmth, which helped fruit to ripen more quickly and protected the trees during the winter months.
A contre-espalier or espalier-aere was the original name for a tree grown away from a wall, but using a trellis to shape and form it. The term cordon was another form, wherein the trees were grown as a single stem upwards and at an angle from their straight trunk.
At this point in time, almost all of these are considered forms of espalier artistry. Whether you’re creating an intricate archway of orange branches, an elegant privacy screen out of Japanese maple shoots, or simply growing peaches or plums along the fenceline, it is a related process.
How Does Espalier Work?
A formal-styled, candelabra pattern espaliered tree. Source: jpmatth
Espalier fruit trees are planted when they are young saplings, usually about a year to two years old.
As the tree grows and matures, supple new-growth branches will be bent to shape and secured to a trellis or wires. This keeps them growing in the desired configuration. New shoots that won’t conform to the desired pattern are pruned off.
There are many different shapes and styles of espalier. For espaliered trees grown against walls, some of the most common configurations are horizontal branches, a candelabra configuration, or a fan shape. These are especially common for espaliered fruit trees.
Cordon-style or contre-espalier patterns include the Belgian fence or lattice, spiraling patterns to go around pillars, various different arched configurations, or horizontal fences. Vineyards often use a horizontal cordon to train the grapes to, creating many short walls of vines.
These must be regularly pruned to ensure new branch growth does not harden off without being trained or trimmed. Maintenance also ensures healthy placement of fruit or flowers where they are well-supported by both the branch and the supports.
Finally, there is the natural form, where you are essentially training the tree to grow flat against its surface but not training the branches to particular shapes. This is the easiest style for beginners.
What’s The Difference Between Formal and Informal?
An informal, fan-patterned espalier tree. Source: Jaypeg
In essence, formal espalier is the more difficult option, where informal is simpler. But let’s go into the differences between the two.
Formal espalier requires consistent and regular pruning to ensure the trees comply with their intended patterning. Formal styles are some of the more ornate designs, like Belgian fences/lattice, spirals, or extremely symmetrical designs.
As an example, a very symmetrical candelabra pattern with four branches trained to a fork-like shape would be formal. Similarly, a formal fan would be very symmetrical and very precise.
Informal espalier are imperfect patterns. These recognize that trees are not always uniform, and thus do not as forcefully demand exact shaping. One of the simplest examples is the basic Y pattern, where two branches will be trained upward in a V-shape from one trunk.
Informal espalier may also allow short, 12″-18″ branches to emerge from the front of the tree, providing extra fruiting space. The trained branches may be less symmetrical, and allow multiple fruiting tips to emerge from them or be on different heights and angles.
What Are The Best Fruit Trees To Espalier?
A single-tier horizontal cordon with upper fruiting branches. Source: Hetx
One of the most common choices, espalier apple tree varieties are extremely common. As apple trees tend to be relatively easy to train, they’re used for a number of different patterns. Horizontal espalier is the easiest, but fan palmetto, candelabra, or spiral cordon are also popular.
Pears are much like apples, because both pear and apple trees fruit on spurs rather than on branch tips. Espalier pear trees often are treated very similarly to apples, but usually are trained horizontal or in a fan shape.
Espaliered fig trees are also popular for the horizontal method, although as figs can become large, they are more commonly trained to an informal fan pattern.
Various stone fruit trees lend themselves to espalier techniques. However, different varieties require different care.
Plums and apricots both seem to do best as fan shapes but can be trained into a low horizontal hedge as well. Both of these need more attention than some other varieties as they tend to send off lots of young shoots.
Peaches and nectarines only produce fruit on new wood, which means that they are going to require a lot more pruning to encourage flushes of new growth. These should be pruned in an informal fan shape to provide room for the young fruiting branches to grow.
It is possible to espalier cherries, but it’s only recommended for people who’ve had some level of formal training in the art. Unfortunately, while espalier cherry trees make gorgeous fan shapes, getting them to provide fruit is much more complicated.
Espalier pomegranate trees do quite well in natural form, as do some forms of persimmon.
Citrus fruits like orange, lemon, kumquat or pomelo can be done, but espalier citrus trees tend to prefer more informal designs over formal patterns. They do well as a horizontal, but fan shapes are much easier to train for these fruits.
A Beginner’s Guide To Espalier Fruit Trees
Belgian Fence patterned espalier apple trees. Source: bmann
Ornate designs sound wonderful, but tend to require some training from people who are more experienced at espalier. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t do an informal espalier fruit tree at home! I’m going to provide a rudimentary guide to the basics.
Select Your Tree
First, you’ll begin by deciding what kind of tree you want to grow. This may be complicated as some trees aren’t self-fruitful and require more than one tree for pollination.
There are multi-budded fruit trees which are available, and these multi grafted dwarf fruit trees can be used for informal fan espalier. However, some limbs will grow more readily than others, and you will need to stay on top of pruning to ensure one variety doesn’t overtake the rest.
Consider also the environment where the tree will be placed. Are the conditions right for the type of tree you want to plant? Warmer climates may not have a cool enough winter for apples, as an example, where cooler climates may find it difficult to grow some forms of citrus.
Remember that many types of stone fruit are tip-fruiting, meaning that only the tips of branches produce the fruit. With these, you will need to have more offshoot branches to provide fruit than you would other varieties.
A one-year old “maiden” tree is usually best to begin with, as younger trees are easiest to train.
Once you’ve decided on the type of tree you want to grow, it’s time to consider the next step.
Select Your Location
This horizontal espalier pear tree is trained into a niche in the wall. Source: Royston Rascals
Depending on where you live, different locations will have different impacts on tree growth. Trees are full-sun dwellers, and most are going to want sun year-round even if they go dormant in the winter months.
For the majority of people in the United States, that means a south-facing orientation is best. South-facing trees have the benefit of more sunlight during the winter months, enabling them to stay warmer even if it’s cold out. Putting your tree against a wall will also help protect it from chillier conditions.
I recommend planning well in advance and watching how much light your intended location gets at different times of day. Choose a location where your tree won’t be shaded too heavily and where it can develop in a healthy manner.
Depending on the shape you want your tree to develop, you will need more space. A horizontal cordon-type can take up to seven feet of wall space to develop, where a Y-shape may take as little as five feet. If you plan on growing a particularly large species, it can take even more wall space. Plan accordingly!
Prepare A Support Mechanism
This 1874 drawing illustrates a common method for securing espalier wires. Source: Internet Archive
Depending on the type of espalier that you’re doing, you need to create a support mechanism. For a dwarf tree that you plan on keeping small, this can be as basic as a wooden trellis. However, larger espalier styles need more support.
These supports won’t actually bear the tree’s weight as much as they will encourage the tree to grow along the set path you’ve decided on. But they still have to be sturdy enough to handle possible tension, especially if a branch tries to grow in an unexpected direction.
One of the most common espalier trellis designs is meant to be used with a brick or concrete block wall. Securing brackets are mounted in the wall, and heavy-duty wires strung with tension between them. Tying off branches to these tensioned wires will help direct their pattern.
Creating A Basic, Informal Y-Fan Espalier
This informal espalier cherry tree began as a Y fan and has developed over time. Source: wallygrom
One of the simplest espalier patterns for the beginner is a Y fan. In essence, you’re shaping espalier fruit trees in a Y shape, and then allowing short fruiting spurs to develop along the two upper arms of the Y.
This will need to be started in late winter or early spring, before your tree comes out of winter dormancy. That way it can devote its attention to developing the branches you want it to develop!
Begin by preparing your soil, and then plant your tree 8-12″ away from the wall where your support will be. If you’re concerned about foundation damage, you can plant as far as 24″ from the wall and then train your tree to bend back towards the supports.
When planting, be sure to spread the roots outward and away from the wall to encourage outward growth. Also, do not plant the tree deeper than it was initially planted, especially with a grafted tree.
Once your 1-year-old tree is planted, examine the trunk. You are going to need to select a point above two buds on either side of the trunk. This needs to be done relatively low to form the bottom stem of the Y-shape, but ensure there’s still plenty of extra buds beneath the pair you choose to cut at.
Trim off the trunk above those buds. You will want to make an angled cut that goes downward and away from the uppermost bud, but do not cut into either of the pair of buds you select. Those buds will produce your Y-arms once the tree becomes active again.
Water and fertilize your tree and allow it to come naturally out of dormancy. As it grows, all of the existing buds on the trunk will produce new growth.
As the branches grow, keep an eye on their progress. You will be selecting a healthy, matched pair of branches to create your Y arms, and those may not always be the top two. Make sure that the pair of branches you select grow at the same rate and are at about the same height.
Once a few months’ time has passed and you’re well into summer, you should be able to remove any branches that grow too quickly or slowly, or that won’t grow in the configuration that you want. Use horticultural ties to secure your chosen pair to the supports to angle their growth.
By late summer, you should have a tree which looks like a Y. You can encourage additional growth in subsequent years to create more of a fan shape, or encourage two pairs of branches to grow during that first year instead of just a single pair and train them accordingly.
Training A Formal Horizontal Cordon Espaliered Apple Tree
Horizontal espalier apple trees. Source: steeljam
When training horizontally-oriented espalier fruit trees, you’ll need more wall width, and will need to set up your supports in advance to accomodate that. These supports need to be exceptionally sturdy, as you’ll be teaching your tree to grow directly along the support structure.
Measure 48″ above the soil surface and mark the wall. This will be your uppermost tier. Mark at 36″ above soil surface and 16″ above soil surface as well, and those will be the level of your two lower tiers. Place your wires level to those marks.
Examine the trunk of your tree before purchasing to be sure that there are healthy buds along its entire length. Picking the right tree for this purpose is essential, as you’re going to want ample buds along its length.
Once you’ve prepared your support structure and selected your tree, plant it in the late winter or early spring before it comes out of dormancy.
Examine your tree at the level of the lowest wire, and select a pair of buds which is on either side of the tree at or close to the level of your lowest wire. Trim off the trunk of the tree 1-2″ above this point, being sure to cut it at an angle away from the uppermost buds.
As the tree comes out of dormancy, allow it to develop many healthy shoots before you select the pair of branches which will form your lowest tier. There will be slow vertical growth coming out of the top of the tree, but keep that trimmed to about 6″ above the lowest wire for now.
Once you’ve selected the pair of branches, begin training it along the lowest wire by using agricultural ties to secure the branches in place. As they grow along the support, keep trimming down the vertical growth until the lowest tier has reached 3/4ths of the length of your training wire.
After you’ve established that bottom tier, allow upper trunk growth to continue up to the second wire and then repeat the process to start that tier. Repeat again for the third tier once your second tier has become established.
Try to avoid pruning off all the leaves or shorter offshoots as you work. Your tree will need some leaves to photosynthesize light, after all! Keep these trimmed to about 4-5″ in length as you’re training the branches
Continue this process until you’ve reached the desired width and height, and then simply maintenance prune your newly-espaliered tree. You can remove excess tip growth beyond your supports and keep pruning down offshoots to 4-5″ length.
In time, every flower on your tree will become a fruiting spur, and your tree will begin to develop fruit. This process can take 4 to 5 years to create a mature tree, but as long as you maintain it, it will produce fruit for many years to come.
Often, fruit produced on an espaliered tree is larger and sweeter than fruit on a standard tree, because it’s exposed to more sunlight and there’s less of it, meaning the tree can focus on making a few delicious fruits instead of many regular fruits.
What To Know For Following Years
Trees can also be trained to a serpentine pattern. Each of these wires supports a branch. Source: gardentrek
Don’t expect fruit in your first couple years of training your espalier fruit tree. Initially, it’s all about gaining the right shape. Later, you can try to encourage fruiting through fertilizer choices or selective pruning techniques.
If you’re in an area where fruit tree pests are common, be sure to use horticultural oils or other products to keep your tree pest-free. This will help to prevent many fungal or bacterial infections as well.
Leafhoppers, mites, and some forms of scale insects are partial to apple and pear trees. Aphids and spider mites or other mites can affect nearly all types of fruit. Keep a watchful eye out for these and other problem pests!
When pruning, always take time to consider your cut and how it might change the future look of your tree. Don’t trim until you’re sure it’s where you want the cut to be.
More advanced espalier patterns require what appears to be much more dramatic bends or shaping of the branches. Don’t try to force your branches in shape quickly, as it can cause cracking or breaking of the wood!
Instead, provide tension by means of ties and the support structure, and gradually increase the tension over weeks or months to encourage the tree’s branches to bend on their own. This is especially important when encouraging 90-degree angles like formal candelabra patterns.
There are many books which can give you more insight on the best ways to encourage dramatic tree shapes, but initially it’s good to start with something simple like a Y or a horizontal cordon and develop from there. It will take time, but you’ll be pleased with your results.
Finally, if you live in an area where deer come to visit, be watchful over your young trees. Deer love that they can reach the new growth and may nibble on your neatly-pruned espalier fruit trees!
Ready to try creating your own espalier fruit trees? I’m thinking of growing an espalier citrus tree and possibly a self-fruiting peach or apple! What espalier fruit trees or patterns have you seen? Share your stories in the comments below!
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