If you have wanted to grow fruit trees in your urban landscape, but are short on space consider growing them flat along a wall, fence or frame. It’s a technique called espalier (Es-pal-yay). This space saving concept isn’t new. It’s suggested that the ancient romans developed the technique. The term espalier is actually a french word that originally only referred to the frame to which the tree was attached, but is now used to refer to the tree as well.
As fall approaches, it is an ideal time to consider planting a young tree to train. Last fall, I planted a semi-dwarf Golden Delicious Apple and a Kieffer Pear tree in my compact vegetable garden. I designed the beds knowing that I wanted to build a frame running parallel with the backyard fence for two espalier fruit trees.
I got my husband involved with helping me build the frame. We used treated cedar 4″x4″ posts as the main frame support. They were placed about 12 inches from the actual backyard fence. We used eyebolts and then strung galvanized steel wire across. We strung five rows of wire across, but I need to add a sixth now. We used turn buckles to help tighten the wires.(As the months pass, you’ll need to tighten the wires occasionally.)
I started with one-year-old trees. Before purchasing the trees, I considered what type of fruit I desired, what would grow best for the areas climate, the conditions present in my garden and if the trees were self-pollinating or not. (Many state’s have extension services with great suggestions on the best fruit trees to grow for your specific area. These services are usually provided by a land-grant university.)
Once I had decided on the type of trees I desired, I looked for young, healthy trees that had a branching structure that could be pruned easily to the desired pattern. I spent $50 dollars for both trees. Since, I’m a beginner and had no previous experience growing espaliered trees, I decided to go with a very simple, informal fan pattern. There are countless ways to prune and shape trees. I love the Belgian fence (which requires a number of trees) and the traditional cordon. Creative gardeners have also shaped trees into actual arbors and even hearts. I admire their amazing skill and patience.
Once you have your trees, plant them in good soil just in front of the wire frame. Prune to your desired shape, but be conservative. Don’t prune more than about 20-30% of the branches at any one time. I use lady’s knee highs to attach the branches to the wire frame. The nylon is soft and gentle and dries fairly quickly when wet. I prune a couple of times during the summer, when the new growth needs to be kept in check. It’s like a little trim, not a major new style.
Admittedly, I was very intimidated when I first decided I wanted two espalier trees. I didn’t think it was something I could do myself. I originally planned to purchase two amazing trees from River Road Farms in Decatur, Tennesse (www.espaliertrees.com). The trees were going to be an investment, but shipping them across states was an expense I wasn’t ready to make on trees I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t accidentally kill. Their trees are gorgeous though and they are worth the expense when you consider they are living works of art. Their staff is also extremely kind and helpful.
There are also a number of books available on the art of espalier. I have a copy of “Living Fences” by Ogden Tanner. It is a good resource on espalier as well as using hedges and vines as living fences. Espalier is certainly not limited to just fruit trees, there are a number of trees that can be trained. You may just want a beautiful ornamental tucked into a small space.
One day I may finally get my belgian fence and ship all those lovely trees to my backyard from those friendly folks in Tennesee, but until then I’ll experiment with my simple fan shapes and enjoy the fruit of our labor in a couple of years.
If you decide to espalier a tree, please let me know how it goes. I’d love to see pics.