Espalier is such a fancy name, the elaborately sculptured trees in versions of candelabras and fans shout skill, art and science.
The look is “Hauteculture.” To the pragmatic and the beginner it can seem all a bit posh or unattainable. In reality, called plain and simple the trellis system, it is used by commercial farmers as a way of increasing profitability per hectare. It is all about training a tree along a single plane to be compact, high yielding and yes, it looks good too.
If we want to grow fruit, and not just any fruit but lots of varieties, in our increasingly small gardens we cannot ignore espalier. I will not and probably could not show you the higher end of the espalier, no pruned prunus portraits; what I want to show is the advantages of basic espalier and how simple it is to produce.
Why are you growing that poor apple along a wire? Well, espaliers give compact plants; less yield per tree but more yield per area. And the space they take up is vertical; they are the original vertical gardens – vertical gardens that are not made of plastic but grow themselves.
The average backyard would have at least 35 metres of spare fence space; espaliered trees can be planted as tightly as
50 cm apart.
Suddenly the dream of an orchard opens up to us all. By having space for more trees we can extend the varieties we grow. This means by using early, middle and late varieties we can extend our harvest. No more glut and famine.
The supreme problem of the would-be fruit grower are the birds, possums, kangaroos and parrots that strip trees of both fruit and foliage. Don’t waste energy on vengeance against the feathered and furred, focus on protection.
Being compact and attached to a framework, espalier makes protection doable – you can reach the whole tree and there is something to hang your netting on. The linear arrangement of trees is also perfectly suited to laying water efficient drip line irrigation.
The starting point for your espalier is site selection and creating the framework. As far as siting goes, a north facing fence with minimal shading is ideal. That being said we have a productive row of espalier apples in our mini plot facing south, so don’t be discouraged.
The support for the espalier need not be elaborate or super sturdy; eventually the trees should support themselves and will hide the structure. Rough posts or star pickets are fine. You can use your fence, but this can cause problems down the track if it needs replacing. Next a few rows of fencing wire, lattice lathe or pipe. There are no rules here on number or spacing. Use your body as a guide; Bob Magnus uses the knee, navel, nipple and nose method of spacing his wires. You are the one who has to reach the fruit.
Next, tree selection. While not essential, dwarfing rootstock is best; you don’t want to be endlessly fighting a tree that wants to be a giant. The classic candidates for espalier are the pome fruits, apples and pears.
They are the best place for a beginner to start. But really most woody plants, evergreen or deciduous, edible or ornamental can be trained along a vertical plane. Although each plant may be suited to a particular pruning technique.
Now the pruning. With any fruit tree first consider on what part and what age wood does the fruit grow. Pome fruits and plums fruit on specialised shoots called spurs; these are short shoots that are recognisable by their swollen appearance. By encouraging horizontal growth through tying branches down to a wire we encourage fruit production over leaf production.
Another reason pome fruits make such good espalier candidates is their spurs can be productive for many years, so, once the horizontal framework is established, pruning is simply the shortening of leafy, vertical growth in summer.
Stone fruit like peaches and nectarines have shorter spur life of 1-3 years so you will need to be vigilant, selectively cutting vertical growth to ensure you always have 1-2 year old spurs present. They are best trained to fan shape.
The shaping of your espalier depends on the form you choose:
Freeform espalier is simply bending and tying the branches of a young plant to a frame. Outward facing branches that won’t flex to the frame are simply pruned away. This method is effective for evergreens like olives and citrus. It produces a dense privacy screen in a very short time with minimal skill and pruning.
The oblique cordon, I swear I wasn’t drinking when I planted it; yes it’s meant to be on 45 degree angle. The cordon is the simplest form of espalier.
Simply leaning an apple, pear or plum tree slows down its top growth and encourages the side fruiting spurs; remove all other horizontal growth. Cordon allows for very tight spacing, as little as 50cm.
The Belgian fence is one of the most complex seeming espalier yet really a group of trees trained into a V, which overlap to form a diamond lattice arrangement. This achieved through pruning to two strong shoots and reducing the growth of any other branches to one or two buds, Cloudehill gardens has a great example of a Belgian fence.
Multi-tiered T espalier is the classic espalier form with multiple horizontal branching coming off a central leader. They need more space than a cordon, 1m apart at a squeeze but 2m is ideal. Start out with a 1-2 year old tree, Diggers fruit trees are sold at the optimum size for starting out. When dormant, prune to the height of your first wire looking for a point with at least 2 buds. Train the season’s growth in a ‘T’ along the first wire. The tree will want to grow up. Reduce the size of upward growth leaving one long stem near the centre to become the new leader. Cut this leader when it reaches the next wire, again look for buds. Then simply continue for each wire on your trellis.
If you are less of the cutting sort you can try the non-pruning method. Start by planting your tree at a slight angle and training it along your first wire. The new season growth is shortened to 1 or 2 buds except for the first strong shoot near the base let this grow and tie it to the second wire at 45 degrees. Repeat for all your wires. This produces almost a cascading effect. If you follow this method you will have a productive tree in 3-5 years.
Once you have established the framework the ongoing maintenance of the espalier is summer pruning of upward growth to about 2 buds. Also, you should occasionally thin out the oldest spurs to ensure continued fruit production.
But for now keep it simple. Just start out and try it. Your espalier tree will become your own piece of living edible sculpture; just don’t tell how easy it was to achieve.