Edible Garden Art; The Truth About Espaliers

It’s time to talk about espaliers. Not only because winter and early spring is the best time of year to consider planting or making one – but also because I’ve noticed a couple of mis-conceptions about this useful garden form among my design clients, so I think it’s time for an overview.

 

plum blossoms

Espaliered fruit trees bring blossoms up close in the edible garden.

 

A review of what you may already know;

Space. Espalier is the art of training a woody shrub or tree into a flattened or two-dimensional shape. This can be done informally or formally into classic patterns. It is said that this ancient art originated with the Egyptians or Romans for the purpose of saving space inside walled enclosures while still enjoying the production of fruit.

 

apple espalier on fence

Apple trees are one of the easiest fruits to form into an espalier.

 

Fruit. Other advantages of this tree-training form are that branches pulled horizontally will stimulate the production of the lateral buds and generally produce more fruit with less tree. Also, when the tree is trained on a south-facing wall (in the northern hemisphere that is) the increased heat reflected from the wall surface can aid in fruit production in cooler climates.

 

belgian fence espalier summer

A “Belgian Fence” style espalier against a south-facing wall at Ladew Gardens.

 

Art. Additionally, an espaliered tree becomes a work of art in itself. The apple espalier lined walkway of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon is a particularly well-known example of this botanical form. Espaliers’ in many shapes were very popular in America’s colonial days. A beautiful west coast example is the living fence at southern California’s Descanso Gardens. A trained tree can be a work of art accessible to any home-grown Johnny Appleseed.

 

begian fence espalier in spring

The Belgian Fence at Descanso Gardens in early spring.

 

Support. The word espalier historically referred to the trellis framework used to train and support the plant itself. This can be a sturdy form that is free-standing or mounted against a fence or wall. Many modern forms rely on cables secured by bolts or turnbuckles. A mature espalier often becomes strong enough to no longer need the original support network.

 

honey crisp apple

A Honeycrisp apple produces good fruit espaliered to a wooden fence.

 

Things I’ve noticed people may not know;

Keep it simple. If you plant one of the “fruit-salad” types that have multiple varieties grafted to one trunk, they will be result in an uneven form. Different varieties will bloom at different times and have varying degrees of hardiness, resulting in some branches being much more vigorous than others. In the long run, the most vigorous varieties may out-compete the lesser ones altogether.

 

espaliered plum blossoms

One of my very vigorous espaliered plum trees in its spring glory.

 

What to use. Apples, pears and citrus are the easiest and most popular. Other fruit trees can be used, such as plums, peaches and figs but they generally have more rampant growth and often need to be custom made. Many other types of flowering trees and shrubs can be used as well, such as gingko, pyracantha and ceanothus, to name a few.

 

espalier on wall with cordons

A classic four-cordon espalier form is commonly available pre-made from suppliers.

 

How they grow. The spacing between the branches, once the basic structure is created, will not change appreciably. In other words, if you buy a pre-made espalier where the lowest branch is 18” off the ground, it will always be about 18” off the ground. I am surprised by how many people think that the tree will continue to grow uniformly, from the ground up, with the misconception that the lowest branch will someday be higher up etc. Any initial spacing between “trained” branches remains consistent over the life of the tree. The girth or circumference of the trunk and main branches, however, will increase over time resulting in beautiful thick, gnarled structure with age.

 

winter espalier form with flowering correa

A dormant single cordon apple lets a flowering Correa show off its winter blossoms.

 

They take work. As with supermodels, most pictures of espaliers show them after they have been beautifully pruned. But if this garden task is left un-done, the espalier will lose its form over time. Also, it’s important to know when to prune. Winter pruning is to stimulate new growth and is the season to create the next branch level of the desired form of the tree. To keep the tree neat and in its allotted space, once it is formed, it needs summer pruning. This is the tree equivalent of hedging and must be done once or even twice during the growing season to keep the desired height and form.

 

summer apple espaliers with roses

The espaliered apples in the summer garden pair well with roses while the Correa fades into the background.

 

However, the tree can gain height (often very significantly in just one season) from sending out new branches from the available buds (usually along  the top), and if they were left un-pruned could allow the tree to gain it’s “natural” height over time. This feature can be harnessed to produce a high screening affect, but also alters the shape of the tree and inhibits the vigor of lower branches, so it should be carefully controlled especially with certain forms.

 

season growth on apple espaliers with bird

The apple espalier with a season’s top-growth left un-pruned makes a high perch for a hummer.

 

The usefulness of the many versions of this botanical art cannot be denied. Espaliers are works of extreme beauty and are a great way to make the most of edible gardening, in a small space or not. An espalier is as useful in the modern garden as it has been in Egyptian courtyards and walled monasteries of the past.

 

espalier closeup

Buy a pre-made espalier or create your own.

 

 

Resources for creating your own espaliered trees and shrubs;

Better Homes and Gardens

Mother Earth News

Sunset Magazine

 

 

 

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Categories: Things to Eat

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3 Comments on “Edible Garden Art; The Truth About Espaliers”

  1. February 8, 2015 at 10:50 pm #

    Lovely informative article about this beautiful garden art. I love espaliered trees for their beauty and production! Thank you.

  2. February 13, 2015 at 1:29 pm #

    This is very informative, thanks. I love espalier and have wanted to try some in my garden for many years. Do you have the name of any suppliers? Maybe this spring will be the year I do it.

  3. February 17, 2015 at 11:54 am #

    So glad you found this helpful. I don’t have info on ready-made espaliers in your particular area but http://www.raintreenursery.com, in the Pacific northwest has a good selection of of apples and pears and ships nationwide. They carry multiple- tier single varieties and Belgian fence starters. But if you make the espaliers yourself you can choose the variety you prefer.

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