Espalier

Create a striking garden focus

Espaliered pear tree.
Espaliered pear tree.

If you have a modest yard with little space for a garden, let alone an orchard, but want fruit trees, the solution could be as elegant and simple as espalier. Espalier, alternately pronounced es-spall'-yer or es-spall'-yA depending on whether you took high-school French, is a framework that supports a tree or shrub that is trained to grow flat, often against a wall. Because it is trained to two dimensionally up and sideways, but not out, it lends itself to being used as a living fence or defining a garden room.

In Europe, where for centuries land has been available only at a premium, gardeners have devised dozens of interesting patterns for training trees and shrubs to grow in narrow spaces with a minimum of fuss. Many trees, especially fruits like apples, pears, and figs, lend themselves to this intensive form of cultivation. Best of all, plants can be grafted, so even if every member of your family favors a different apple, you can have the equivalent of a half dozen varieties on a few compatible rootstocks.

Benefits

Espalier location and design

As mentioned, espaliered fruit does well in a south-facing location, particularly close to a building which can collect and radiate heat back to the plants. Winter protection from excessive wind and light is important to prevent die back of branches, though the extent of this varies by climate and latitude. Eastern exposures may also work, especially if they are not in location that gets punishing winter winds. Northern exposures don't work because they simply won't get enough light for flowering, though if fruit production is not your goal other plants can be trained to pleasing effect.

Espaliers can be cultivated as freestanding garden design elements with a dedicated structure, against a masonry wall, or against buildings.

The design of the espalier itself can be either formal or informal.

Informal espalier has the advantage of being less demanding than formal designs and is therefore a logical place for a newbie to start. Usually an informal design requires slightly less pruning and may be shaped to suit the structure, plant, and gardener's aesthetic. It is no less beautiful for it's lack of formal symmetry. Whimsy can easily be incorporated into the design and is only limited by imagination.

Some common, formal designs include:

Structures for espalier

There are a variety of easy ways to create an espalier frame. You can work with an existing trellis, though building one specifically for the plant ensures that it can provide adequate support for branches loaded with fruit.

Plan on placing your frame about one foot away from buildings. This allows you to paint or make repairs without disturbing the plant and will preserve the finish on the building as well as prevent damage to your plant.

You can create a basic espalier using 4x4 pressure treated fence posts that have been placed at ten foot intervals. Drill the posts to accept 12-15 gauge wire and secure with wire vises which are used in vineyards or attach the wire using heavy-duty eye-bolts. Pull wire tight. Loop the ends so you don't scratch yourself and ruin your shirt every time you walk by. Run the wire in horizontal courses through the fence posts measuring about 10 inches to a foot apart starting about a foot and a half from the ground.

If you plan on creating an espalier against a masonry fence a system of sturdy eye-bolts and wire can work just fine.

Training your espalier

You can buy plants that are already started, but depending on their size they can run several hundred dollars or more. Though it doesn't allow for instant gratification, starting your own isn't difficult.

Most gardeners get into espalier after being seriously bitten by the gardening bug and approach it as a structural element in their garden. As such, it pays to plan before you start plopping plants in the ground. Local horticultural clubs or master gardeners in your area can help with suggestions tailored to your climate. If you want to try your hand at grafting, they can give you pointers as well as provide leads on where to get plants, root stock, and scions for your espalier. Keep in mind that the simpler designs are more easily maintained, which may be a consideration.

Once you know the purpose, structure, and plants you'll be working with, the espalier is primarily a matter of following a few basic steps. These tips may help.

Plants for espalier

As with most aspects of gardening, experimentation is the key to pleasure and eventual success. Plants traditionally used for espalier include apples, pear, persimmon, and figs. Get a little wild and try a pomegranate. If fruiting isn't an issue, you could try espaliering evergreens like yews or ornamentals like pyracantha. The following table shows a short list of suggestions.

Type Plant
Vines
  • Ivy
Fruit
  • Apples
  • Cherry
  • Cornelian cherry
  • Crab apple
  • Pear
  • Peach
  • Persimmon
  • Plum
  • Pomegranate
  • Quince
Ornamentals
  • Forsythia
  • Roses (rambler or climbers)
  • Viburnums
  • Witch hazel
Evergreen shrubs and trees
  • Gingko
  • Japanese maple (any thing you might use for bonsai would be fine for espalier)
  • Juniper
  • Yew

Espaliered plants are distinctive, beautiful, and frequently the focal point of a garden. You'll receive many compliments on your espalier, but bear in mind that it will require annual pruning and constant training.


Do you need help building a structure for your espalier project? A landscape contractor can help with your project from post hole digging to designing an espalier. Find a qualified professional at UpdateRenovate .

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