Espalier Pear Tree Maintenance: How To Espalier A Pear Tree
By: Teo Spengler
An espaliered tree is a flattened tree grown alone one plane. This classic garden focal point also maximizes your garden space. Read on for information on how to espalier a pear tree.
Growing Espalier Pear Trees
You can espalier a pear tree along a wall or fence, or else along a walkway. In either case, you’ll need to first plant the tree. Pick among pear trees suitable for espalier.
One of the popular pear trees suitable for espalier is the Kieffer pear (Pyrus ‘Kieffer’). This cultivar grows fast and vigorously and doesn’t require pollinators. It generally starts producing fruit at two years old. Kieffer pears rank high among pear trees suitable for espalier because they are very resistant to disease and can be grown in chillier temperatures, down to U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone 4.
Other good pear cultivars to try for espalier are:
- ‘Red Sensation Bartlett’
- ‘Harrow’s Delight’
How to Espalier a Pear Tree
If you are growing espalier pear trees along a wall or fence, plant your trees some 6 to 10 inches (15 to 25 cm.) from the structure. For growing espalier pear trees along a walkway, construct a frame trellis and install it at the same time as the tree. Only trees that are one or two years old can be espaliered.
Typically, when you start growing espalier pear trees, you train the tree branches along the wires of a trellis. You can select among various espalier designs, including the single vertical cordon, the single horizontal cordon, the verrier candelabra and the drapeau marchand.
Build the first level of the trellis before you plant the tree. All that you need for the first few years of pear tree growth are the lower horizontal and inner vertical components of the trellis. You tie the flexible young branches of the young tree to the trellis wires.
You can erect higher features of the trellis as time passes. Once the lower branches are trained, start training the upper, inner branches. You’ll probably have to wait about a decade for the espaliered tree to reach its mature size.
Espalier Pear Tree Maintenance
The first year, while the tree is dormant, cut off the top of the tree several inches above the point you want your first tier of lateral branches. When small branch buds swell along the tree’s main leader, remove all except the half dozen closest to your first tier wire.
Pick the two branches closest to the guide wires to become the first horizontal tier. Pick the bud with the most vertical growth to be the new leader. This will, in time, become the second tier of branches. Remove the other three once you are certain these are established. As the selected branches grow, tie them to the wires every six inches (15 cm.).
You have to keep up with espalier pear tree maintenance to keep your tree looking tidy. Prune back side shoots to about 6 inches (15 cm.) on a monthly basis during the growing season. If you prune too short, you will have less fruit.
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The Origins of Espalier
Fragments of “The Mystic Capture Of The Unicorn” tapestry, showing early espalier. Source: Public Domain
It’s hard to place the exact time and place where the artform of espalier first developed. Ornamental gardening was common throughout the middle ages, including topiary art. However, espalier fruit trees and other forms became widespread at some point during the Renaissance.
When we look at tapestries from the period, there are some examples of early espalier shown in them. They’re not universally spread through tapestries or paintings from that time, but they’re visually becoming part of the formal garden culture.
One of the best known examples is in the tapestry fragments of “The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn”, where espalier fruit trees are shown around the enclosed garden. The tapestry, part of the well known Unicorn Tapestries, is estimated to have been made between 1400-1600.
Originally, espalier was a reference to trees that were grown against walls. The heat of the walls would provide warmth, which helped fruit to ripen more quickly and protected the trees during the winter months.
A contre-espalier or espalier-aere was the original name for a tree grown away from a wall, but using a trellis to shape and form it. The term cordon was another form, wherein the trees were grown as a single stem upwards and at an angle from their straight trunk.
At this point in time, almost all of these are considered forms of espalier artistry. Whether you’re creating an intricate archway of orange branches, an elegant privacy screen out of Japanese maple shoots, or simply growing peaches or plums along the fenceline, it is a related process.
10 Easy Steps to Espalier Your Fruit Tree
- Decide upon your location — you’ll need a spot with full sun and about 8 linear feet of space.
- Build your structure. Your espalier will need a support structure to grow on as you prune and train it. A common structure includes (2) 4 x 4 wooden posts set 8’ apart, with 12-gauge galvanized wire stretched and attached between them at 18” horizontal centers (18” from the ground, and two more tiers each 18” taller than the previous one).
- Purchase and plant your tree. Bare-root trees are best, and unbranched whips are ideal. Plant it 8-12” centered in front of the support structure.
- Choose 2 branches to attach to the first level of wire. Look for strong and healthy, yet supple, branches. Using the plant ties, attach one branch to the wire going left, and the other going right.
- Prune out the other branches. Yes, this is kind of emotionally difficult to do, but trust us — it’s for the best. The center trunk is the “leader” and needs to be pruned just above the two branches previously attached. Prune out any other branch as well.
- Continue pruning throughout the growing season. Suckers grow straight up and need to be removed, but stubbier shoots called spurs will also grow. Leave one spur every 6” along your horizontal branch and prune off the rest.
- Year 2 pruning: Repeat steps 4-6 on the second horizontal wire.
- Year 3 pruning: Repeat steps 4-6 on the third and final horizontal wire.
- Periodically check the plant ties, and loosen or replace accordingly.
- Harvest fruit: Although your tree may bear fruit during the first summer, it’s best snip off cherry-sized growth until the third growing season. I know — this is brutal, but allowing your first and second growing seasons to be all about root and branch growth will give you a much larger, and better, harvest later on.
The main mistake in pruning fruit trees is…
The main error people make is not pruning them enough. David Morrice showed me a ‘chamber of horrors’ collection of photographs of unpruned fruit trees.
You get less fruit if you don’t prune. More diseases. Trees droop over, laden with heavy greenery, their branches sagging miserably.
‘It’s difficult to kill a tree with pruning,’ he says. ‘If you prune too hard, the tree will just react by growing more strongly as it perceives a threat.’
However, he says it’s sensible not to prune trees if a very hard frost is forecast, as that can cause a little dieback.
The Advantages of Espalier
This simple techniques gives us important advantages over letting your fruit trees grow naturally.
The tree occupies less space: In smaller gardens this is a big deal. A full-grown fruit tree can be 20 feet across, dominating and even engulfing a small space. Grown on a wall it isn’t even a foot thick, and takes up almost no space at all, leaving room in front for low plants to be grown.
It looks attractive: many people are put off growing fruit because they think it needs an orchard, and fruit trees are not especially attractive (although peach blossoms are beautiful, and so is a tree laden with ripe fruit. . .) On a wall the simple geometry – and the wall covered in leaves or flowers – is a handsome garden feature you will be proud of, and something that will gain you ‘bragging rights’ among neighbors and friends.
It protects from late frost: One of the problems with growing fruit, and peaches in particular, is the damage to blooms that a late spring frost can do. Peaches bloom early in spring, and once flower buds begin to swell they lose all their winter hardiness. Just a degree or two below 32 can kill those blossoms outright. No harvest that year! A wall traps heat during the day, and it may warm from inside the house as well, and that can often be just enough to keep the air a few inches away above freezing for those few hours before dawn when frost strikes.
It helps ripen the fruit: When it comes to peaches this is probably the main advantage there is. Peaches are a fruit that needs lots of sun and lots of warm and in cooler zones that may simply not happen. The reflected heat close to a wall and the exposure of every peach to full sun combine to bring every fruit to sweet perfection.
It ripens fruit earlier: Even in warmer zones there are advantages to espalier. The same variety on a wall will ripen 2 or even 3 weeks earlier, spreading the season and giving you fresh fruit of your favorite variety for twice as long.
Protection from birds is easier. You can drape a net over a flat tree much more easily than over a rounded bush, if they are taking your crop.
How to Espalier a Peach Tree
What do I need? – Peach trees usually don’t need a second, different variety for pollination, so just one tree is all you need. Of course, if you want fresh peaches over a longer period, by all means grow more, but you might find you need a bigger house. . . But seriously, the first thing you need is a tree. Choose one that is hardy in your zone, and preferably one that is at the smaller end of the size range. Some varieties naturally grow 12 or 15 feet tall, rather than 20 feet or more. Don’t worry, you don’t need that much room on your wall.
Then you need a wall. South-facing is best, but south-west or west facing will often do the trick as well. Don’t worry about windows – you can train the tree around them – but you do need a reasonable amount of hard surface. Brick or concrete are best, as they hold the most heat, but wood or vinyl will do just fine.
You need enough space to grow your tree. For a peach a space about 10 feet wide and 8 feet tall should be enough. If you have more space, then of course just plant more trees!
Since you need to attach your tree to the wall, there are two or three options. The easiest is to just drive nails in wherever you need an attachment point. But that can be difficult in brick. One way is to attach trellis panels, and tie your plants to that. It looks beautiful, but the further out from the wall your tree is, the more of the warmth and shelter you lose. A simple way is to use a system of horizontal wires. Attach them at either end of the space you are going to use, and put in strainers to keep them tight. Space wires about 12 inches apart, as close to the wall as you can get them – an inch or two is great. Another option is to attach long canes or steel rods to the wall in the fan pattern you use, adding more as you need them.
How do I do it? – For peaches the usual pattern is a simple fan, so your goal is a number of branches radiating out from as close to the base as you can manage. Look at the base of the tree and find the ‘dog-leg’. That is where your particular variety was grafted onto a root-stock plant. Only the parts above that point are your peach, so never cut below it, and remove any branches that sprout from down there.
Choose a young tree. Buy the youngest tree you can. It will grow quickly and you may not be able to create a good fan from an older tree. You can still grow an older tree on a wall, but you won’t be able to create the fan shape so well.
Now plant your tree with the ‘dog-leg’ facing the wall, as close to it as you can manage. Do all the usual things – enrich the soil, add some bone meal or superphosphate, and water well while planting.
Now for the hard bit. Even if your tree is 6 feet tall, we are going to cut it back to between 12 and 20 inches above the ground. Don’t worry, it will grow back amazingly quickly. If you can see buds, great, cut above 2 that are on opposite sides of the stem. If you can see anything, don’t worry, they will soon appear. You need to make this cut in early spring, before the tree blooms or leaf’s out. Cut at a slight slope slanting away from the top bud.
Let the tree shoot out and wait until mid-summer to prune again. Now select the two strongest stems that are growing out to the sides, and try to find two that are of equal thickness. Remove all the rest flush to the trunk. Tie those two stems flat, at about 45 degrees from horizontal, and you are on your way. Next spring shorten back those two stems as you did with the original trunk, and train two more branches. Keep doing this until you have as many arms as you need for your fan and the space you have. Alternatively, as in our photo, allow a central stem to keep growing up, fanning out the side branches.
To keep all the stems growing evenly, raising a stem more vertical will make it grow more, lowering it more horizontal will make it grow less. Within a few short years you will have blooms, and you are on your way to the best peaches you have ever tasted – your own, home-grown peaches.