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Fruit Tree Espalier

Many of us do not have the space for growing fruit trees in the conventional manner. Training fruit trees into an espalier against a wall or a fence, not only allows us to grow certain fruits in a small space, but also provides aesthetic value and increased fruit production. It may take a while, but is well worth the effort.

Originally espaliered trees were grown in marginal temperate climates where fruit production was low. By bending branches horizontally fruit growers could direct energy away from the vertical growth and into producing spurs (the lateral branches that will flower and produce fruit) thereby increasing fruit production. They also discovered that by growing a tree flat against a wall or fence, a microclimate was formed which radiated heat and provided shelter. A wall reflects more sunlight and the heat is retained overnight allowing the fruit more time to mature and extending the season. So, it’s a design element in the garden, can hide unsightly walls, can be grown in a small space and produces more fruit – what more can we want.

Things to remember

Espaliered fruit trees need support throughout their lives. A central stem supports tiers of horizontal branches all trained along the same plane and equally spaced apart. They generally have four or five tiers for easy access, however more is possible and also single tiered espalier are sometimes used as edging for garden beds. They can be grown against any supporting structure, so are ideal to hide utility areas or cover walls. 

Espalier is a high maintenance activity in the garden, so patience is required. By limiting the number of plants maintenance is reduced.

Plants can be coaxed into various patterns from free-flowing informal designs to complicated formal designs with diamond, candelabra, basket weave, or fan patterns. In this article we are concentrating on tiered espalier.

Plant selection

For fruit trees such as apple and pear, select a cultivar that produces a large number of spurs and is budded onto dwarf or semi-dwarf root stock. Select a plant with a small, strong single stem or one with very small side branches that can be pruned off when planting. Fruits such as plums and cherries can be espaliered but it’s good to remember that they bear fruit on shoots from the previous season’s growth. Other fruit that can be espaliered are figs, certain citrus like limes or lemons and quince. Several non-edible plants can also be espaliered including several types of magnolias and camellias, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, pyracantha hybrids, Acer palmatum and Ginkgo biloba as well as vines such as ivy, wisteria and climbing roses to name a few. In this article we focus on apple or pear espalier.

Site selection

Choose a site with a simple background that will showcase an espalier plant. Consider the amount of sunlight and soil drainage needed for each specific plant type. Normally the best location is on a north- or west- facing wall with the most direct sunlight. A south- or east-facing wall will receive very little sunlight which will produce limited foliage, flowers and fruit. 

Prepare the plant site as you would for any other plants, included loads of compost and superphosphate or bonemeal into the planting hole. The tree should be planted 15-25 cm away from a wall to allow adequate room for the roots to grow and allow air circulation around the plant. Plant the tree in the hole at the same depth it was growing in the container. Water well and apply a layer of mulch around the tree, but not touching the stem.

Constructing the supporting framework

Use heavy gauge (12 or 16) galvanised wire to construct the framework. For walls, drill holes into the masonry at regular intervals and use plastic plugs and eyebolts to thread the wire through and secure. The framework should be around 15 cm from the wall. You can also build a trellis from wood. The first wire or support should be 38-46 cm from the ground and each following tier the same distance apart. 

Pruning and training

Between late autumn and late winter prune back the maiden tree to 38 cm above the ground. Make your cut to the topmost of 3 good buds. The top bud will extend the main stem and one facing the left and the other the right will develop the horizontal branches. 

In summer, train the topmost shoot to a vertical cane. Train the left and right shoots onto canes set at a 45° angle. If the side shoots are uneven, lower the vigorous branch slightly and encourage a weaker branch by raising it. Tie the branches to the wires using a soft string or a twist tie and check that the ties are not too tight as the plant grows in diameter at least twice a year and replace if necessary.

In late autumn carefully lower the two horizontal branches and tie them to the first tier wire. Cut back the main stem to 46 cm from the lower level leaving three good buds as was done in the first step so that the cycle begins again. Also prune back the horizontal branches by a third keeping three good downward-pointing buds.

In the second summer train the central leader and the horizontal branches at 45° angles as with the first tier. Prune the last season branch shoots to 3 leaves from the stem.

In the second year in late autumn, carefully lower the upper most branches and tie them to the second tier. Prune the side branches by a third on both tiers and cut back the central stem to 3 good buds ready for the next season. Repeat this process until the number of tiers required is reached.

Mature tree pruning

Once the tree has reached its top level, cut back the new terminal growths on the vertical and horizontal branches in late spring so that the tree does not get any larger. Continue to cut back shoots to three leaves in summer.