It’s finally happened to me. I have filled my back yard with almost everything I want to grow, and I still find things I want to grow. Of course, I have to figure out where to put them.
One amazing answer lies in something gardeners have done for centuries- espalier. Pictures of espalier fig trees have been found in Egyptian tombs, multiple paintings and tapestries of Europe’s Middle Ages depict espalier fruit trees and vines and today, it is still popular.
Really, the explanation is simple. As the plant is allowed to grow, no front or back limbs are allowed. The side branches are allowed to grow and tied to a support structure in certain shapes. The plant’s height is controlled as well so the resulting effect is balanced.
During the summer, the effect is stunning, and during the winter, the plants still provide a focal point with their unique growth and shapes. Fruit grown in this manner is full-sized, although the yields are managed so the limbs can support the weight. Many non-fruiting plants are also grown in this manner.
Espalier trees and vines act as yard decorations, borders, hedges and more. They form beautiful additions to any landscape. For those with small yards, growing fruit trees is no longer a forlorn dream, but a reality.
You will need:
• The fruit tree(s) of your choice
• Plant ties • Any necessary soil amendments
• A written plan• Shovel and tools for digging and planting
• Support for your trees
Fruit trees and vines for espalier:
Apples, cherries, figs, plums, peaches, grapes, apricots, persimmons, kiwis are all wonderful candidates for espalier. Keep in mind that it will take up to four years or possibly more to fully grow and train the trees or vines in the pattern you select. Don’t be afraid of the work- the harvest and beautiful garden focal point are well worth the effort.
Get a written plan together:
Measure your chosen area for length and height. How many plants will you place in the area? Make sure there is enough space between plants for proper root growth. Will you attach the plants to the fence itself? Is the fence in good shape? What shape(s) will be chosen? Will the plants be in the direct path of strong winds? Consider these details along with your plan.
If planting next to the house, walkway, or a fence that belongs to a neighbor, separate support is needed. Select your site:Plan to place your trees approximately six inches from a fence or wall. Call the utility company to ensure no phone, electrical, water, gas or sewer line will be affected by your digging.
Research how to implement planting trees for your soil and climate. Some plants survive best when planted in the spring, while others should only be planted in the fall.
Types of support:
A trellis may be used against a house or a fence with stunning effect. Set the posts at the proper distance, build your frame, attach the lattice, and begin your planting process. I would suggest using PVC lattice and composite posts and decking for the frame. The reason is simple- it won’t rot and you won’t wind up trying to move the espaliered plants out of the way to maintain or repair wood.
Posts and cables or rails are a less expensive alternative. I still recommend the composite materials for the above reasons. Plastic coated cable is available at hardware stores. Use eyebolts to secure the cables at both ends, and a turnbuckle may be inserted in the cable to keep it taut when supporting a crop.
Shapes of espalier:
In your plans, draw different shapes to determine the best look for your garden. Keep this with you as you shop for plants, build your supports, especially when you are trimming and training the trees.
Horizontal espalier is known to many, thanks to grapevines. We’ve all seen it- a central trunk with horizontal branches stretching out from the sides. Decide how many horizontal branches you want to grow and train your plant accordingly.
Fan candelabra espalier is beautiful. A central trunk is allowed to grow, and select branches are trained to grow up at a 45-degree angle away from the tree.
The lattice pattern may be seen in stately homes and at some university gardens. The central trunk has horizontal branches with a few vertical branches allowed. They are trained to resemble a lattice, squares, or are interwoven while they are growing.
There are many variations of espaliered plants and trees. Have fun researching the perfect plants and shapes for your garden. After You’ve planted your trees and vines:You’ve researched, dug, selected, drawn, planned, and built the supports. Your plants are in the ground and soon shoots will need trimming.
Here are tips to help you trim your plants and train the branches. Of course, your research will also tell you the best time of year to trim your plants.
1) Any front or back facing branches- take these off. Cut next to the trunk about a quarter of an inch, and cover with branch sealant.
2) Always cut back to a bud or lateral branch. If you are working on a lattice pattern, I would tie colored yarn or string to those branches I want to keep so I don’t cut them accidentally.
3) As the branches grow, secure them to the supports with the plant ties.
4) Once the main trunk reaches the selected height, cut it off. Don’t worry- it won’t kill the plant.
5) Fertilize, weed, and maintain your plants as you would any non-espaliered plant.
I would recommend selecting dwarf or miniature trees for their small size to begin with. This eliminates having a massive trunk for fruit trees that may interfere with fences or the balance of your plans. One idea is to try to incorporate many different designs into your garden. In addition, the plants don’t have to grow against a fence- a separate trellis or support is easily built for a single plant at a time. Try growing espaliered trees in a square for an instant garden seating area.
Source: Patty Moreno, “How to Espalier Fruit Trees,” Stark Bros. Nursery Website, 22 October, 2010