I’ll admit that at first the idea of backing a tree up against a wall, flattening it into a single plane occupying a mere few inches, and then training branches to grow outward instead of upward seemed rather silly. Why wouldn’t you plant a tree with the intent of having it grow large and full? And then, I started learning more about the art/practice of espaliering trees and may have spent some time in my backyard this morning scouting sections where I could try it myself!
If you have no idea what an espaliered tree is, no worries. Many people don’t. In this case, an old practice dating back all the way to the ancient Egyptians is making a big comeback. Espaliered trees — trees pruned to occupy just one plane — have come into favor again as homeowners and gardeners look for ways to grow trees in small spaces or create a living (and often delicious) fence or privacy screen. It is one of several advanced tree-training techniques collectively known as arborsculpture.
It takes time and dedication to espalier a tree, but many believe it is well spent as the end result is a beautiful, decorative accent in your landscape. An added bonus is if you choose to espalier a fruit tree and can literally pick the fruits of your labor.
Benefits of Espaliered Trees
While it may seem counterintuitive to plant a tree and then prune it so you are only growing a limited “slice” of the canopy versus the whole tree, there are some prominent benefits to training a tree in this manner.
- Bring fruit down to eye level, making it easier to harvest ripened fruit than a traditional tree.
- Take up far less space, so this is greatly beneficial for homeowners with small spaces or limited garden space.
- When planted against a south-facing wall, the wall provides shelter and also reflects heat throughout the day from the sun, generating a microclimate of sorts. This allows gardeners to plant trees that may be slightly out of their hardiness growing zone.
- Sunlight penetrates through the canopy more efficiently, leading to better fruit ripening.
What Fruit Trees Are Good for Espalier
Apple, crabapple, and pear trees are the typical choices but many fruit trees work well to espalier. Apple and pear are traditionally used because their fruiting spurs can produce fruit for many years and the branches are quite pliable when the trees are young, allowing you to train them into the espalier shapes.
The following cultivars are some of the more popular apple, crabapple, and pear trees.
Apple (Malus cvs.):
- Arkansas black
- Red delicious
- Golden delicious
Ornamental Crabapple (Malus cvs.):
- White cascade
- Golden raindrops
Pear (Pyrus cvs.):
- Red sensation Bartlett
- Harrow’s delight
If you’re looking for fruit trees besides those options, pomegranate, fig, cherries, lemon, orange, tangerine, nectarine, apricots, plum, and peaches are also popular.
What Other Plants Are Good for Espalier?
Sometimes people opt to go with a non-fruiting tree to espalier. Fortunately, almost any tree or ornamental shrub that has a climbing nature or long, pliable stems/branches can be espaliered against a trellis.
Some good ornamental choices include:
- Rose of Sharon
- Flowering quince
- Japanese maple
Basic Espalier forms
There are a handful of basic espalier forms to choose from with the following four the most commonly used. The forms vary in the amount of time and work it takes to create the desired shape.
The basic framework of simple designs may be established in three or four years, while intricate designs will take longer.
- Horizontal cordon: The most common framework, a central trunk is grown with lateral branches growing outward horizontally. A 3-tier design is the most common.
- Candelabra: A low horizontal branch comes off the central trunk, with vertical branches growing upward at regular intervals to create a candelabra shape.
- Belgian lattice: Also known as Belgian fence, three or more V-shaped espaliers are woven together to create a lattice effect. The trees on either end are modified to finish to maintain the intended finished edge.
- Fan: A central trunk has branches angling out at 45-degree angles to create a fan shape.
How to Espalier a Tree
Before you get started on espaliering a tree, it’s important to understand this process is time-consuming and it takes a lot of time and dedication. These trees aren’t any less work than growing trees traditionally.
It’s best to start this process in early spring with a bare root specimen. For tips on choosing a fruit tree and the advantages and drawbacks to bare-root versus container-grown trees, head over to my article, A Guide to Planting Fruit Trees.
Choosing a Tree
Regardless of if you opt to espalier apple trees, another fruiting variety, or an ornamental, keep in mind a couple of things when purchasing a tree.
When choosing trees, a dwarf tree or semi-dwarf variety works the best because of their naturally shorter stature. It’s also best to choose a fast-growing specimen as this will make the training process quicker and easier.
Young saplings that are only 1- or 2-years old work best. Their limbs are still quite pliable compared to an older tree.
If you are planting a fruit tree, opt for self-pollinating types of fruit trees if you are only planting one. If planting an apple, choose apple trees that are spur-bearing since they produce more fruit.
Selecting a Planting Site
Look for a spot in your yard that receives full sunlight at least 6 to 8 hours a day (more if you are planting a fruit tree), and has at least 6 to 8 feet of open linear space for your espalier design.
You want the soil to drain well, and optimally have a soil pH between 6.0 and 7.5.
Building a Support Structure
In order to train your tree to grow in the desired shape, you need to have a support structure in place until the tree matures enough so the wood hardens. This support structure can be:
- Against a wall, typically brick or stucco as they are more resistant to weathering and damage than walls of your home that have vinyl or aluminum siding.
- Along an established fence, a pergola, or trellis or trellises that are already in your yard.
- Across a structure composed of sturdy, free-standing posts and horizontal wires similar to how the majority of wine grapes are grown.
Before even planting your tree this support structure needs to be constructed. As many homeowners choose to espalier trees against a wall or along a fence, the following directions are tailored to those two situations. I’m also going to describe how to build a 3-tier horizontal cordon as they are the most common.
To build the structure you will need:
- Measuring tape
- Pencil or chalk
- Drill with a 3/16” bit (masonry bit if you are building against a brick or stucco wall)
- 3/16” eye bolts (or wall mounts on masonry)
- 12-gauge wire
- Wire cutter
- Eye protection
- Heavy-duty gloves
Building the Structure
- Determine the approximate center spot of the open linear space in the intended location. Measure 4 feet up from the soil surface. Draw a line from the soil to the 4-foot point, using a pencil or chalk. This is where the central trunk of your tree will grow.
- Along this vertical line make marks at 16-inch intervals to create three evenly spaced tiers.
- At the first 16” mark measure outward 3½ feet in both directions to create the first tier, marking these horizontal lines. Repeat for the second and third tiers.
- Now that the basic outline is in place you need to don your eye protection and work gloves and break out the tools. Using your drill install eye bolts along the central trunk at ground level and where each of the three tiers intersects it. The opening on the eye bolts should be 4 to 6” from the wall or trellis once installed; this allows the tree room to grow, it promotes air circulation, and allows you to access the wall to perform maintenance if necessary.
- Again, using your drill, install eye bolts at each end of the three horizontal tiers.
- Starting from the base of the central trunk thread wire through the four eye bolts creating the vertical structure. Twist the wire using pliers at either end to secure it, and then snip with a wire cutter.
- Repeat the process to thread wire vertically, creating the individual tiers.
Planting Your Tree
After you have the support/wire structure in place you can go ahead and plant your tree.
- Using a sturdy digging shovel (I prefer one with a pointed center) dig a hole that is slightly bigger than the root system on your tree about 4-inches out from your structure. Aim for a hole that is about two to three times as wide as the roots and only 2 to 3 inches deeper, regardless if you are planting bare-root or a container tree.
- Place the root ball in the planting hole so the graft union — the visible spot where the rootstock was grafted to the fruit tree — is slightly above the soil surface line. A good way to ensure this is to lay a piece of lumber, a bamboo cane, or a fence post across the top of the hole to give you a visual indicator of ground level when the hole is filled in. Begin filling in under the roots under it can be rested, unassisted, in the bottom of the hole. Once the tree can be rested in the hole, spread the roots out evenly and begin the process of filling in the rest of the hole.
- Gently tamp the soil down with your foot as you fill the hole in, trying to remove all air pockets, without compacting the soil around the roots. Create a slight bowl or depression as you reach the top of the hole to allow water to naturally settle around the tree. Make sure you do not mound soil up around the trunk.
Training and Pruning
Now that your tree is planted, it’s time to work on training your tree into your chosen espalier shape.
The principle behind espaliering a tree is simple. Plants have a main growing point or stem, known as a leader. If you remove this leader, shoots emerge from buds found on the sides of the stem, and below the cut. You then choose the best side shoots to guide/train them to create the boughs of your espalier tree. The topmost shoot becomes the new leader and, will eventually become the trunk.
As the desired pattern emerges, maintenance requires pruning growth that takes away from your desired shape. You want to keep the plant low-growing.
5 Steps for Pruning an Escaliered Fruit Tree
The following instructions are for training and pruning a fruit tree such as an apple or pear tree.
- Attach the trunk of the tree to the vertical wire below the first tier using plant ties, rubber grafting bands, or stretchy strips of rags.
- Prune the center trunk about 1-2 inches above the first tier using a heading cut while making sure there are at least three buds below the cut.
- As the tree comes out of dormancy the first year and begins to grow, select the two healthiest shoots to attach to the bottom-most horizontal tier. Keep trimming the vertical growth of the tree to about 6 inches above the first tier to force horizontal growth, until the horizontal branches grow to about three-fourths of the length of the support wires.
- Regularly remove suckers that grow straight up from the lateral branches. Prune off extra spurs, the stubbier shoots, leaving one every 6-inches. As the spurs grow, prune them so they only have three leaves/
- In the second year, you should have enough growth along the first horizontal tier to begin on the second. Allow the vertical trunk growth to come up above the second junction. Follow the same procedure you did with the first, training the two healthiest shoots along the support wire.
- In the third year, repeat the process to create the third tier.
- As your tree is growing, prune offshoots along the horizontal branches to about 4-5 inches in length, prune any suckers or water sprouts that grow. Prune off growth along the vertical trunk. Remove any fruit that develops the first four years.
- Once your espaliered fruit tree reaches the desired height and width, switch to maintenance pruning. You want to keep your horizontal shoots at the proper length and any offshoots shorter to maintain separation between the tiers. Pruning the tips of the horizontal shoots will encourage more spurs to grow and develop fruit.
Solovchenko, A. E., Avertcheva, O. V., & Merzlyak, M. N. (2006). Elevated sunlight promotes ripening-associated pigment changes in apple fruit. Postharvest Biology and Technology, 40(2), 183-189.