Espalier: Flat Trees Mean More Fruit

apple tree trained in espalier form

apple tree trained in espalier form

If you have a small courtyard or enclosed patio with a narrow planting bed inside along the edges, but still want to grow fruit trees, consider the possibility of espalier.
Espalier (ess-pal-yay) is a practice that involves growing fruit trees in a flat plane against walls or fences. It originated in ancient Egypt and first appeared in Europe in monasteries during the Middle Ages. The basic espalier form, which mimics the cordon system for cultivation of grapes, simply requires you to fasten horizontal lengths of baling wire at 14-inch vertical intervals up the wall or fence against which your fruit tree will grow. You may extend your wire cordons as far as 15 feet, meaning that you would have up to 7 1/2-foot branches growing horizontally off either side of the trunk.
Plant your tree so that the trunk is 6 to 10 inches away from the wall. This will allow for air circulation and plenty of room for the trunk diameter to expand without rubbing against the wall. One-year-old fruit trees are recommended, but older trees can also be utilized.
Select a standard, single-trunk tree and, after planting it, cut it down so that the top of the trunk meets the lowest wire on the wall. Shoots will sprout from the point where the cut was made and, when they are several inches long, you should snip off all but three of them. Two shoots should be carefully attached to the baling wire on either side of the trunk with soft strips of cloth and the third allowed to grow up vertically. When the ascending shoot reaches the second cordon, cut it and wait for new shoots to emerge before selecting three more shoots to continue the training of your espaliered tree.
Apple, pear, quince and fig trees are the easiest to espalier because of their highly flexible branches. Citrus, guava and persimmon also are recommended. Use dwarf or semi-dwarf trees, which are easiest to control, where available. For maximum sun exposure, you will want to select a west- or south-facing wall. But keep in mind that walls impart a significant extra measure of reflected heat that could burn leaves or fruit in our scorching summer heat.
If you live in a hot spot without overhanging trees or eaves to take away some of the sun’s force, you may want to espalier against an east-facing wall. By the same token, if you live in an area where winters are occasionally frosty, planting against a full-sun-exposed wall makes growth of tropicals such as citrus a less risky proposition. Heat absorbed by a wall during the day radiates outward and warms plants growing against it at night.
Aside from taking up less space, espalier trees produce fruit earlier and have heavier crops than free-standing trees. The reason for this is a change in hormonal balance, in favor of fruitfulness, that occurs when branches are bent to the horizontal. Espalier trees, since they seldom exceed 6 to 9 feet in height, also have the advantage of being easier to harvest and prune than conventional trees.
Almost any ornamental tree, shrub or vine can be grown in espalier fashion. One of the favorite choices for a richly flowering espalier this time of year is the Japanese camellia, which comes into full bloom in February. The fall-blooming Sasanqua camellia is another worthy, albeit slower-growing, espalier candidate. Other favorite espalier subjects include hibiscus, magnolia and ginkgo. If you have a shadier spot against a wall that needs some livening up, consider growing an espaliered star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), English holly (Ilex aquifolium) or Japanese maple.
TIP OF THE WEEK: In the front yard, instead of having to painstakingly manicure an unproductive lawn, why not plant an avocado tree or two? In the summer you will save on air conditioning as your avocado tree(s) will grow up to 60 feet or taller, shading your house. In addition, you will save on water, as mature avocado trees need only 20 gallons of water per day, as opposed to a lawn, which requires around 125 gallons per day per 1,000 square feet. (On 1,000 square feet, you would plant one or two avocado trees.) The mulch that your avocado tree needs to stay its healthiest will be provided by its own slowly decomposing leaves.

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