How to Espalier Trees
Espalier is an ancient tree-growing technique that can bring a formal elegance to any garden. Espaliered trees are trained against a wall or structure and pruned so they grow flat against their supports rather than round and bushy. This approach maximizes space, offering an efficient way to grow fruit without requiring any more maintenance during growth season than other backyard trees. Proper installation is key to creating an espalier that will become a focal point of your garden.
Step 1 - Plan Your Design
Are you trying to enhance your privacy, make a creative design, enjoy fruit, create a boundary, or simply add some greenery? Your goal will help you decide which kind of structure to go for. It'll also help you determine how many trees to purchase and where to plant them.
There are six traditional espalier styles:
One main trunk with limbs pruned into minimum of three tiers, but can have as many as five. Makes a good living fence or for maximum harvest in orchards.
Branches trained at 45 degree angle from main trunk create a fan shape.
Branches form a 'U' as limbs are trained upward from their origin at the main trunk.
Low horizontal limbs trained from central trunk with vertical branches pruned to rise at regular intervals give shape to its descriptive name.
Several V-shaped espaliers woven to create a structure that gives a lattice effect.
No real pattern, but still trained into a flat plane. Requires the least amount of pruning.
Step 2 - Prepare Your Structure
Whether planted against the wall or a free standing structure, you'll want to ensure you've got sturdy support before planting begins. If planting against a brick or stone wall, draw the design you've planned with chalk on the wall. Use a masonry bit to drill the holes where you'll insert lag shields and screw in eyebolts.
If drilling into wood, the masonry bit and lag shields are unnecessary. Insert eyebolts into pre-drilled holes, and attach galvanized wire where you plan to train the limbs.
The lowest wires should start 15 inches above the ground. String three or four rows, evenly spaced, until you reach the height you want. This is your training system.
A freestanding structure will require more work than attaching it to a wall since it needs to be sturdy enough to support the weight of branches laden with fruit. Posts made of untreated rot-resistant lumber like cedar or redwood should be installed in the ground at regular intervals with training wires connecting them. The posts should be long enough to top out at least three feet over the desired height of your espalier after installation.
Step 3 - Make Your Purchase
Once you've decided on the variety of tree, another option to consider is whether to buy one already espaliered or not. A tree that has already begun its training as an espalier will naturally be more expensive due to the work involved before sale. But choosing on of these will reward you sooner with results. Pre-espaliered or not, it's best to choose dwarf or semi-dwarf trees that will be easier to manage.
Step 4 - Plant the Trees
Two to three foot saplings are the best size to start with. They are young enough to train, and not too young you'll be waiting to see results. Plant the sapling six to ten inches away from the wall or fence to allow for circulation as growth occurs. Space the trees two feet apart in well-drained soil.
The best time for planting is fall, to allow the root system a chance to establish before spring growth. Water the new plantings well, providing additional irrigation if winter rains don't occur.
Step 5 - Proper Pruning
Late winter or early spring, you'll notice branch growth beginning. Prune the top of the tree to stimulate side branching. After this cut is made, branch buds will form. Rub off all but the six closest to the top tier of your structure. These will become the branches you will train along each tier. You will continue to train in this way until you have the look and design you want.
Trees add structure and elegance to a garden, and have the ability to give us joy in a variety of ways—shade during hot summers, fruit for sustenance, beauty, and inspiration. A formal espalier has its place even in the most casual garden, especially if fruit is your primary objective. A little know-how along with regular maintenance will make these trees an attractive focal point with minimal use of space. In a few years, your fruited espalier will reward you with its sculpture and strength, not to mention its bountiful yield!