How To Espalier: Instructions For Fruit Tree Training
By: Nikki Tilley, Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden
Espalier trees are the result of intense training, in which the plants are urged to grow flat against a wall, fence or trellis. While nearly any plant can be espaliered, including vines and climbing plants like ivy and roses, most people prefer using fruit trees such as apple and plum.
An espalier fruit tree can make an exceptional focal point for bare areas along outdoor walls of the home or other structures. When trained on a trellis, these plants can also serve as attractive screens to hide unsightly views or to add privacy. Read on to learn more about how to espalier and fruit tree training.
Fruit Tree Training
You can train espalier trees by removing undesired growth. The best plants for espalier fruit tree training are those with flexible branches. There are several ways how to espalier plants, from simple informal designs to more complex training patterns like cordon, basket weave, and candelabra. The method you choose generally determines what plant you use and the maintenance required.
For instance, informal patterns can accommodate many types of plants and are less time consuming than formal espalier patterns, which have fewer plant choices and require frequent maintenance. However, there are also pre-trained espalier trees available. In addition, most espalier fruit tree techniques require some type of support such as a trellis placed near a wall or fence. Sturdy, freestanding supports can be used as well.
How to Espalier
Keep in mind that any espalier undertaking will be time consuming — sometimes taking up to five or more years to complete. Espalier directions usually depend on the type of pattern selected. However, there are basic guidelines you can still follow:
- Plants should be placed on the south or east-facing side of the home. These should also be planted at least 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm.) deep or at the same depth of their containers.
- Train espalier trees while branches are still young and flexible, developing the lower outermost limbs first. Carefully bend branches into the desired design, tying them into place using soft string or pantyhose. Remove all unwanted branches.
- For those with dominant shoots, wait until the main shoot has reached the desired height before cutting out the top. For complex patterns, such as cordon, which use lateral growth, cut the terminals at the first cordon—about 15 to 18 inches (40-45 cm.) from the ground. For natural designs, simply tie branches in their natural form without overlapping branches.
Pruning Espalier Trees
Be sure to prune during the proper season for the plant you have chosen. However, touch-up pruning can be done throughout the growing season as needed. Remove any unnecessary branches and loosen the ties as needed for growth. Also, remove flower buds during the initial training period to allow the plant to reach its desired height more quickly. Don’t tip prune branches of a design until it reaches the desired length. Allow side shoots to grow approximately a foot long before pruning.
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DIY: An Espalier Tree Screen
Espalier—or trained—trees never fail to look really impressive, whether they form a grand allée on a country estate or are used simply as single specimen trees against a stone or timber wall. And while they look tricky to create, even a novice can learn to sculpt trees into artful garden screens, partitions, or features. Here we take you through the steps to get started with your own espalier.
Read on for a materials list and step-by-step instructions:
Photography by Clare Coulson for Gardenista.
Above: My inspiration is a pear tree espalier against a wall at Great Dixter.
- 4-foot crabapple trees (space them 6 feet apart to create a screen)
- 7 6-foot bamboo poles per tree
- 2 8-foot bamboo poles per tree
- 1 7-foot bamboo pole per tree
- Plant ties, such as Soft-Ties (£3.99 for a roll at Haxnicks)
- 6-foot high posts (1-2 per tree)
- A sharp pair of pruners
Step 1: A Case for Crabapple
Above: Many fruit trees can be trained but crabapples have wonderful spring blossom and autumn fruits, which often stay on the branches through winter, providing color and a food source for visiting birds. Malus Floribunda has exceptionally pretty pink blossom but there are many other varieties m Evereste with its very straight trunk and abundant white blossom is also perfect for training.
Step 2: Build a Support System
Above: After you select trees, construct the supports. Branches can be trained along taut wires or bamboo frames that are made to fit the spacing of the trees a wire system is quicker to install and gives a much sleeker finish but bamboo frames are a little more rustic. In this case trees are spaced 6 feet apart, although more vigorous trees would benefit from a much wider spacing. For each tree, create a grid of bamboo each horizontal pole will support one line of your espalier and I am spacing each horizontal pole a foot apart. Add a cross brace with the two longest bamboos for extra strength and the single 7 foot bamboo pole across the middle which can sit on top of supporting posts while you tie everything else in. Use rot-proof garden twine or soft ties to secure each join.
Step 3: Add Support Posts
Above: Space posts and trees choose post heights according to how high you want your espalier to be here posts are only 6 feet tall because I am training what will ultimately be a fairly low screen (around 8 feet tall). Knock each post into the ground to a depth of at least 18 inches and then plant each tree in between. Planting holes should be twice as wide as the root balls. Keep at least a couple of feet around the tree clear of any weeds or grass (after you have back-filled your hole, a good mulch of bark chips on top will help to maintain this).
Step 4: Tie Bamboo Frames to Trees
Above: Now tie in each bamboo frame. First attach the lower half of the framework to the supporting posts. Then gently tie branches to the supports using soft ties. Choose the closest, strongest growth for each line of bamboo. If a branch can’t be bent close to the support then tie in loosely, gently encouraging growth in the right direction.
Step 5: Trim Side Shoots
Above: Finally, with some sharp secateurs, trim any side shoots on the trained horizontal branches down to a couple of buds and completely remove any side shoots from the main trunk.
Step 6: Be Patient
Above: Continue to train the trees by repeating this each summer until all tiers are covered. Eventually as branches thicken, the bamboo support can be removed (but in the meantime it adds some vertical structure and interest – while you sit back and wait for the main event).
Espalier is a technique that can add serious wow-factor to your garden. It means to grow your tree two-dimensionally. This saves space, and makes it easier to attend to the tree. Check out the nitty-gritty espalier how-to by Peter Thevenot.
My interest in espalier began when my wife, Beth, and I visited Mount Vernon. I remember being taken by the way the paths in the vegetable garden were lined with plants shaped into low hedges. As I bent down to inspect them, I discovered they were actually espaliered pear trees that bore fruit. On the two walls that bordered the garden, there were more espaliers trained into fan shapes that served as focal points. The way these trees were artfully trained made the garden seem so inviting, while also lending structure and balance to the garden’s overall design.
After returning home, I read all the books that I could find on espalier and spent long hours in the hot Tennessee sun with pruning shears in hand, trying to recreate the shapely trees that I had seen at Mount Vernon. Since then I’ve mastered many designs and even opened a nursery that specializes in espaliered trees. And through the years, I’ve learned that all it takes to create beautiful espaliers is a good plan, some judicious pruning, and a little patience. Read more.
How to Prune Nectarine Trees
Last Updated: July 18, 2019 References
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Pruning a nectarine tree can seem like a daunting task at first. Doing so, however, is key to encouraging healthy growth. Without pruning, the tree will most likely produce small or malnourished nectarines, or may produce none at all. By creating a Y-shaped branch pattern when planting your tree, pruning smaller branches in the first 3 years to help the tree distribute nutrients, and removing unhealthy growth, your tree will produce healthy nectarines for years to come.
How to Grow Espalier Apple Trees
Always prune at a 45° angle, just above and sloped away from a bud. Notice the position of the opposing buds near the wire.
Old espaliers have regal personalities, which they perhaps display best in winter. Fruit buds vs. lateral buds. The plump, furry, ringed buds are fruit buds leave them alone if you want apples. The smoother bud at the tip can be pruned. Tie down the laterals when they're thin and whippy. If they get too woody, they could snap when bent. Tie them in the middle of the bend, not at the tips, so they'll grow straight rather than bowed.
I will never forget my first encounter with espaliered fruit trees. In the 1950s, it was. I was interviewing for the post of assistant head gardener to a prominent British aristocratic family. During my guided tour of the exquisitely manicured gardens, we turned a corner, leaving a boxwood parterre, when ahead of us was an avenue of espaliered fruit trees, ending at a grotto surmounted by a huge piece of garden statuary. I was but a few years out of horticultural college, so my reaction to this enchanted lane of hedgelike trees was a combination of fascination and daunting thoughts of how to deal with the trees.
My guide, seemingly unaware of the horticultural magic we were passing, continued chatting, about what I don’t remember. I felt the trees were staring back at me menacingly, daring me to ruin years of training and loving care. I got the job, later becoming head gardener, and I believe that over the years, the espaliers and I came to respect, if not love, each other. Little did I realize that first day that nearly 30 years later I would come to America to serve as superintendent of the gardens at Stratford Hall, the Virginia birthplace of Robert E. Lee, where, lo and behold, I was placed in charge of a garden bisected by avenues of treasured espaliered fruit trees.
Espaliers, of course, have a long history before me. The ancient Romans grew them first, but the form was brought to perfection several hundred years ago by the French, who are responsible for naming the system espalier, a derivation of the French word épaule, meaning shoulder.
But why should we bother with espaliers today when we have all the dwarf fruit trees we need? Basically, and right down to the nitty gritty, it’s the challenge. This art form gives gardeners justification for sticking out their chests and saying, “I did that, and I’m glad you like it.” There are a number of back-up reasons, too. Espaliers are a year-round garden feature, and they’re easier to maintain and harvest than standard or dwarf fruit trees. Even the most rambunctious of children will thrill at being asked to harvest fruit from trees no taller than they.
Select a spur-bearing variety
The best tree for the method I’m describing is a dwarf, straight-leader tree known as a “whip.” A whip is a young tree comprising a single vertical growth with no branches or side shoots. Whips are normally sold as two- or three-year-olds at a height of 3 ft. to 4 ft. The rootstocks of these trees should be of M9 or similar dwarfing stock. M11 and M26 rootstocks are also suitable.
You can train pears or peaches on a two-wire trellis—though not cherries, which prefer fan training—but I’m going to limit my discussion to apples. I suggest you choose your favorite modern varieties, with one important caveat: The varieties must be spur bearing, meaning their fruit forms close to the main branches, not at the tip of vertical growth. ‘Red Rome’, ‘Stayman’, ‘Red Delicious’, and ‘Golden Delicious’ are all spur bearers and would be my choices. Some companies offer varieties they say are self-pollinating, but for reliable cropping, all apples need a second tree to effect pollination, so plant at least two.
I recommend purchasing a balled and burlapped tree. I don’t like container-grown fruit trees because they may be pot bound, which discourages the tree from forming roots in its new surroundings. Bare-root trees are okay, but with them, a slight drying out can be fatal.
Plant a single-stem tree
|Keep the graft union 2 in. to 3 in. above the soil to ensure survival of the newly planted whip.|
You can plant apple trees in either the fall or the spring—here in Virginia, mid-March is ideal—so long as you do not plant them when the ground is frozen or waterlogged. You will no doubt want to establish a row of espaliers, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll describe how to proceed with one tree. First you’ll need to select an open site. You can run a 10-ft. trellis east to west, north to south, or any which way, but avoid shade and poorly drained soil.
Dig a hole halfway between the trellis posts you want the tree to extend 5 ft. in either direction. The hole needs to be about 4 in. to 6 in. deeper than the root ball. I suggest you place a stick across the hole to ascertain the surrounding ground level. Be sure soil removed from the hole is returned “as is.” Mixing in additives such as peat moss, compost, manure, or fertilizer will discourage the tree roots from expanding to search for food and anchorage.
Replace a little broken up soil in the hole, then lower the tree into it, and check the depth against the stick. The graft union, a swollen area just above the top of the root, should be 2 in. to 3 in. above ground level, as indicated by the stick if it’s not, add or remove soil to correct the depth.
Ideally, you want to position a pair of opposing buds at roughly the same height as each of the wires. Turn the whip until these buds aim toward the posts, so the lateral growth that springs from them will travel naturally along the wires. Now untie the burlap and push it tightly down into the hole without removing it. Gradually refill the hole and firm the soil. Water the tree copiously to ensure the soil comes in contact with the roots, and then add mulch.
Year one: establish a lateral framework
Now comes the fun part, training. I use a sharp pair of anvil pruners for a safe, clean cut. With anvil pruners, the blade slices evenly while the flat anvil cushions the plant stem. To facilitate water run-off and prevent disease, always cut at a 45° angle, away from the bud. Make your first cut at the top of the whip, just above the two buds positioned beside the top wire. Then take a soft plastic plant tie or a twist-tie and secure the whip loosely to the two wires. Now it’s a waiting game.
|One cut and two ties is all it takes to get started. It may be a cold day in March, but you’ll need only a minute after planting to cut your whip just above the top wire (left) and then secure it loosely with plant ties (center).||Always prune at a 45° angle, just above and sloped away from a bud. Note the position of the opposing buds near the wire.|
To create a two-tiered espalier with four horizontal branches, or laterals, you need only the two buds at the bottom wire and the two at the top wire. All other growth should be removed. Use your thumbnail or a knife to rub off or cut away all growth as soon as it emerges from the buds between and below the four you intend to keep.
When the growth from the four buds you have saved is 4 in. to 6 in. long, which will be in four to six weeks, carefully bend the laterals down to the wires and secure them loosely with ties at the center of the arches you have created.
When the four laterals extend another 4 in. to 6 in., about four weeks later, bring them down and tie them to the wires. As the season progresses, continue to tie down the lateral branches as they grow.
|Tie down the laterals when they’re thin and whippy. If they get too woody, they could snap when bent. Tie them in the middle of the bend, not at the tips, so they’ll grow straight rather than bowed.|
Occasionally suckers will sprout below the graft union or even below soil level. This growth is from the rootstock, and if allowed to develop will likely turn your tree into a form of wild crabapple. Use your anvil pruners to remove all such growth.
Year two: prune vertical growth
At some point, most likely during the tree’s second season, the laterals will reach the posts. When they do, cut off the growing tips and continue to do so to prevent the laterals from getting any longer.
As the laterals are growing horizontally, vertical growth will sprout up along their length. When the verticals are about 8 in. tall, you need to prune them back to the first two pair of leaves. After the first pruning, more growth will radiate from the remaining buds. Roughly every six weeks, you’ll need to prune the new growth, again back to two pair of leaves. This amount of growth is sufficient to support the tree in its natural processes of photosynthesis and the conversion of foods into tissue.
|The plump, furry, ringed buds are fruit buds leave them alone if you want apples. The smoother bud at the tip can be pruned.|
Typically, your first pruning will take place in late April, the second in early June, and the third in mid to late July. Growth will slow down noticeably by mid-summer, so the next pruning might not be needed until September. The last pruning, really a tidying up, may come in late November. The timing of your five or so prunings will vary according to your climate and locality, of course, but this gives you a general idea.
As you continue pruning back to two pair of leaves, fruit bud clusters, sometimes called spurs, will form close to the branches. Fruit buds are plump, furry, and made up of cylindrical rings, all of which distinguishes them from the thinner, smoother lateral buds. Whereas a lateral bud produces branch growth, a fruit bud will, as its name implies, blossom in spring and then bear fruit. You want apples, of course, so do not cut out growth composed of cylindrical rings. Now you see why you cannot use apple varieties that bear fruit at the tips of lateral growth. In pruning, you would have cut off all the potential fruit.
Year three: thin errant branches
During the third year and forever thereafter, you should prune the lateral growth back to a single pair of leaves, rather than back to two pair. As always, leave the fruit buds alone. In year two, your tree might have produced a few apples. Now in year three, your tree should produce a full crop. Do not be tempted to remove any of the apples rather, leave fruit thinning to the tree itself. At about mid-summer, the tree may discard some of its fruit to support more fully a lesser amount, a phenomenon known as the June drop.
By the close of the third year, the essential structure of your tree will be established. Now comes the winter of its discontent. You should examine the clusters of growth for any branches that are crossing, and cut out the offending branch. Thinning will prevent the branches from damaging each other and will allow more light and air to penetrate the tree. From here on, you need only carry out this thinning of growth clusters every two or three years, depending on the vigor of the variety.
Espaliers of the rich and famous
Robert E. Lee’s Virginia family was by no means the only democracy-loving convert to the aristocratic art of espalier, originally used in chilly Europe to grow fruit trees on the sunny side of a garden wall. George Washington had cordon espalier fences of the type found at Stratford Hall dividing the beds in his Mt. Vernon kitchen garden, and flat espaliers against the brick garden walls.
Captains of industry also joined the horticultural show. The original duPont immigrant, an avid botanist, developed a French-style kitchen garden combining vegetables and flowers, its sections divided by cordon apple fences, its beds punctuated with free-standing espaliers, and its edges displaying a variety of elaborate flat patterns, including the beautiful Belgian fence. In duPont’s homeland, gardeners had been outdoing each other since the time of Louis XIV developing ever-more-splendid espaliers, perhaps reaching their crowning achievement—or low point, depending on your perspective—with an espalier developed by M. Lepère honoring the Emperor Napoléon.
|Old espaliers have regal personalities, which they perhaps display best in winter.|
by Ron Wade
from issue #13
- Citrus trees (Citrus spp.) — Lemon, Orange and Tangerine, etc
- Fig trees (Ficus carica)
- Apple trees (Malus spp.) — Apple, Crabapple, etc
- Stone fruit trees (Prunus spp.) — Peach, Nectarine, Plum, Almond, etc
- Japanese maple tree (Acer palmatum)
- Camellia shrub (Camellia japonica and C. sasanqua)
- Gardenia shrub (Gardenia jasmonoides)
- Creeping fig vine (Ficus pumila)
- Winter jasmine vine (Jasminum nudiflorum)
Espalier is a creative way to create a striking visual feature in the garden. Image courtesy of Cyclone
How To Espalier Fruit Trees
Espalier tree training features in European gardens in both formal and informal styles. Very old espalier fruit trees can be found growing on old brick and plaster walls in gardens in France. This method of tree training is attracting interest with New Zealand gardeners keen to create a compact and attractive tree feature.
Espalier trees are often grown against a wall, traditionally brick or plaster, but wires between posts can be used to support and train the tree. Using this method the tree creates a part-wall perfect for dividing areas of a garden or edging a kitchen potager, while still retaining sunlight and visibility.
GETTING STARTED WITH YOUR ESPALIER FRUIT TREE
Step 1: Plan your pattern. It is important to consider the type of fruit tree when planning the pattern, as to the age of wood the fruit is borne on. For more information see the Fruit Tree Physiology section (below).
Step 2: Choose a location. Most fruit trees need a minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight, so a north facing situation is best.
Step 3: Choose the plant and appropriate rootstock. As most espaliered trees are subjected to intense pruning and ‘braking’ of growth with training, in general, semi-dwarf or vigorous rootstocks should be used in all but the most fertile soils. For clay soils, select rootstocks that perform well in this soil type. In highly fertile soils with irrigation, dwarf rootstocks can be used. Selection of disease-resistant varieties will ensure minimal spraying is required.
Step 4: Prepare the support. You will need to fix horizontal wires to a structure that will support your espalier. These will be used to train the branches at desired angles. Wires can be spaced 30 to 60cm apart (the latter used in the instructions below). With fences and walls, fix the wires using eyebolts to keep the plant away from the structure. Incorporating turnbuckles to keep the wires taut is recommended.
Step 5: Plant your tree. Set the plant in the ground about 30cm from the wall, fence or post structure.
Step 6: Start training your tree. Use the instructions below for the most common espalier patterns.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR A TRIPLE HORIZONTAL CORDON
For apples, pears and nashi.
1. In spring, cut the whip or leader to where you want the lowest set of branches to form - usually at the first wire.
2. The tree will branch out from where you have cut it back. Select the best three sprouts and pinch off the rest.
3. When two of the sprouts grow to about 7.5cm long, make them the horizontal arms and begin tying them along the bottom wire. Make sure to use material that will not damage or restrict the growing branches.
4. Let the other sprout grow vertically to the next wire (you may need to use a bamboo stake), and cut it off again. Once this vertical limb has sprouted, repeat the process from Step 2, selecting and tying horizontal sprouts, leaving one to grow vertically to the next wire.
5. As the horizontal shoots grow, continue attaching them to the wires. Pinch off shoots that grow toward or away from the wall. Prune frequently and lighting.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR A FAN ESPALIER
For stonefruit, quinces, berries, citrus, figs and persimmons - types that don't produce fruit on spurs.
1. In spring cut the whip or leader to where you want the lowest set of branches to form - usually at the first wire. Wires should be as close as 15cm apart.
2. The tree will branch out from where you have cut it back. Select the shoots required to make your fan shape pattern. Train these shoots up bamboo canes tied between the wires.
3. Refer to the Fruit Tree Physiology section below regarding renewal of fruiting wood from the main branches. Branching off the main limbs will produce the fruit. With many fruit types these branches will need to be removed and renewal branches selected after fruit has been produced.
A SHORT LESSON IN FRUIT TREE PHYSIOLOGY
It is important to understand the natural needs and growth of fruit trees when undertaking an espalier, to produce a productive and ornamental tree.
The most difficult forms to create are those with horizontal branches. Sap moves easily up a vertical trunk or branch, stimulating rapid vegetative growth and elongation of the branch. As a branch is trained away from the vertical, the flow of sap is progressively braked. This has two effects - slowing down of vegetative growth, and stimulation of fruit bud production - both good effects. By training a branch horizontally, it will stop growing entirely - so you need to trick the branch by keeping the growing tip bent upwards.
To ensure the branches elongate, it is important to rub off the fruiting buds during the early training stages.
When selecting the fruit tree type and pattern of your espalier(s), it is important to consider what age wood the fruit is borne on. As apples & pears produce fruit on the same wood year after year, a formal, static pattern can be chosen. However, as stonefruit, citrus, figs, persimmons and berries produce fruit on one or two year old wood, renewal of fruiting spurs is required. Therefore a fan/palmette espalier is the most appropriate pattern for these fruit types. In this type of espalier, the fruiting branches grow from the main branches. These are removed after fruiting, with new fruiting branches allowed to grow each year. Due to the need to promote the renewal fruiting secondary branches, a formal espalier pattern is not appropriate for these fruit types. Another reason for choosing the fan pattern for these fruit types is that some of the branching is particularly strong, making the 90 degree bends of formal espalier patterns difficult to achieve.
As you get more and more into your espaliering, you will learn to recognise and understand the different types of buds (vegetative and fruiting) and the branching patterns of your trees.