Espaliers: Train a Tidy Fruit Tree

Improve the quality of your fruit harvest, and the look of your landscape, by training trees to grow in flat, fanciful forms known as “espaliers.”

| November/December 2019

Photo by Getty Images/stocknshares

Espalier is a strange topic. Either you’ve never heard of it, you’re too intimidated to try your hand at it, or you’re obsessed with it. There isn’t much gray area on the subject.

Those of you in the first category may be wondering: What is an espalier, anyway? At its most basic, an espalier is a small fruit tree or bush trained to grow flat on the side of a building, along a fence, or as a fence or screen. Technically, espalier (ess-PALL’-yay) is the method of training the tree into growing in a flat form, not the tree itself. But most people call the whole thing an espalier, a bit like a bonsai tree. Espaliers are typically found growing against medieval castle walls, in estate conservatories, or in the backyards of Master Gardeners. You could make the argument that a grape arbor is a kind of espalier, although most espaliers are more structured and formal.

Espalier is fundamentally a formal training style, but because the basic materials are living woody plants, there are almost as many patterns and forms as there are espalier. The form you choose can be as rigid and formal or as whimsical and fantastical as you wish. I have two European pear trees trained as four-tier horizontal cordons, and I’m getting ready to plant an Asian pear that’ll be trained as a candelabra form. Search online for the key words “espalier form” or “espalier pattern” for a wealth of ideas, and modify the form you choose to suit your fancy and your growing situation.

Plan for Success

Keep the type and size of your plant in mind when you choose your espalier form. I made a rookie mistake when I chose two European pears on semidwarfing rootstock for a 12-foot area — a space big enough for just one semidwarf. Fifteen years later, I still struggle to get them to flower, while they still struggle to grow larger. I’ve learned my lesson, though, and the Asian pear will have twice as much space in which to spread and fruit.

Semidwarf trees need a minimum of 10 feet of wall space to grow, full dwarf trees can be comfortable with 6 feet of space, and small-fruit bushes, such as currants, fit nicely in 4 to 6 feet. These suggestions assume wall space and room for multiple branches; training along a single fence rail will require at least double the linear space. Heavily planted forms, such as Belgian fences, require full dwarf trees, as each individual tree has only two branches growing in a “V” laced together with its neighbors.

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