Sep 112010

Okay, despite what my mates thought, espalier is NOT a Spanish bullfighter, tropical disease or foreign currency, but a fantastic way to grow trees (including a load of luscious fruit) in smaller spaces. But, a word of warning… while it is a great idea, it does require regular work, and is definitely not recommended for the lazy gardener, or those scared of secateurs.

Essentially, espaliering trees is a way of making them two-dimensional rather than three. Yup, I know that it sounds like we are defying the laws of science here, but espaliering is all about maintaining the height and width of a plant, while reducing the depth (I guess that’s also what I am trying to do at pilates!). It’s also a great way of maximizing the productivity of a warm sunny spot along a wall or a fence. Effectively, it means you can grow what is normally a big tree (or two) in a much smaller space… how good is that?

So how do we do it? Well, you need to pick a nice, sunny spot as almost all trees (especially fruiting ones) will perform best in this type of location (north facing walls are fantastic). Attach either wires, or pre-fabricated trellis frame to the face of the structure, making sure the fence/wall/shed can tolerate a bit of weight (it will be supporting a tree after all!). If the fence or wall is prone to getting particularly warm (think bricks or colourbond/galvanised steel) you may need to build a trellis frame and sit this about a foot in front of the surface, as this will stop the plant from cooking in the summer heat.

What now? Now that you’ve picked your spot, you need to consider what shape you would like your espaliered tree to take – essentially this is a choice between formal and informal. Formal espaliered are highly regimented, and can take a little more haircutting and training than informal, but they look great. Informal espaliers can take whatever shape you like, and you can get really creative with this! For beginners, the easiest (and most common) type of espalier is a three wire system, with the wires attached to the structure, and positioned about 30cm apart.

Select a tree that lends itself to being grown “flat”, meaning that it a two nice strong horizontal branches, and a strong, straight trunk. It’s time to get ruthless, and chop off any unnecessary branches, twigs and the like… yes, it can be heartbreaking, but you’ll benefit from it in the future! Cutting back the remaining branches will also encourage new growth, which is super important if you want the tree to fruit! The middle stem (or central leader) should be allowed to eventually reach the top wire, or wherever you would like the top of your espalier to be, but, when planting, cut this middle stem back to the second wire, leaving buds facing the wire. These will become the next “layer” of branches next season. Repeat this in the third season, cutting back the central stem to the third wire, and so on.

The branches then need to be attached to the wire or trellis, using flexible clips or old stockings. Ensure you do not do these up so tight that you amputate the branches or trunk… that would be a very bad look indeed!

And then what? Generally, fruit trees are pruned back quite hard over winter, to promote great growth and fantastic fruit come spring. This is no different for espaliered trees, although a couple of prunes during the warmer months (growing season) will also assist in maintaining and training, and should result in a great looking espalier in years to come. Just be aware that some fruit trees bear their fruit on 2 to 3 year old wood, so don’t get too enthusiastic and cut off all your fruiting wood! And, get into espaliering… Ole’!

  12 Responses to “Espaliering Trees”

  1. Hi! I only have an east facing fence… so sunny only from the afternoon on…are there any fruit trees that would suit?

    • An east-facing fence would get sun up until mid day so most fruit trees that grow in your area will grow, but perhaps not as well as in a northern aspect. If you meant it is a fence on the east side that is actually facing west, fruit trees will grow quite well, although you might want to give them some protection on hot summer days when the combination of high temperatures and direct sunlight might stress them.

  2. I would like to espalier red plums and persimmons against a north facing wall on the side of the house.
    Can you let me know what variety would be the best to choose for this? Thanks

    • If you are planting against a north wall, which will be hot in the summer, you should choose varieties of Japanese plums like: Narrabeen, Satsuma, Wickson, Santa Rosa, Mariposa, etc. These plums don’t take well to traditional espaliering as you see with apple trees but can certainly be grown flat as a fan shape against a wall. Persimmons would also grow in that position with a few considerations. The soil would need to be mulched to keep cool and moist. Leaves may burn from radiated heat on a very hot day so you could hang some hessian or similar behind it on a hot day. Persimmons don’t need much pruning so just shape it so it grows flat.

  3. Hi, we are wanting to espalier some fruit trees. How far apart should they be?

    • Spacing for espaliered fruit trees will depend on the type of tree and rootstock. Apples on dwarfing stocks would normally be planted 2-2.5 metres apart while trees on semi-dwarfing stocks could be spaced at 3-3.5 metres. Pears & apples on normal stocks would need constant heavy pruning in summer and winter so aren’t recommended. Citrus spacing would again depend on the type with smaller growing varieties spaced at 1.5-2 metres and large varieties at 3-3.5 metres. Stone fruit can be espaliered but doesn’t take to well to it. The other alternative is to grow the trees as a flat fan instead of the traditional vase shape. It would be easier to manage and would still have a high yield in a narrow space. Trust this helps.

  4. Just recently discovered te world of espalier..
    I would love to grow some fruit trees along my back 15m long fence…
    How many plants can i fit in that space…
    Or how far apart should plants b planted…
    I was hoping to do the horizontal T shae style..
    And other tips and advice would b more than welcom.

    • Espaliering is a great way to get more yield out of a given space. The number of trees you can plant depends on the growth habit of the tree. For example, there are a number of rootstocks used for apple trees that produce a tree with an ultimate height from 1.8 metres – 5 or 6 metres. When selecting trees check this out. If you get one that is on an ordinary stock you will be forever cutting the tree back as it wants to keep growing. If you were planting ‘columnar’ apples your could plant them 1 metre apart. Apples are probably the easiest to espalier as they form a framework that will keep bearing off spurs while stone fruit need to be pruned so that they produce new growth each year to bear fruit. Citrus can be espaliered quite effectively, just keep removing growth that is coming forward. There are many websites that are committed to espaliering that could be referred to.

  5. We would like to espalier four fruit trees – a Eureka lemon, a Meyer lemon, a Tahitian lime and a red grapefruit. We have built the espalier frame for the four trees and are now sourcing the new trees. We have seen the fruit trees in various sizes – 200mm, 330mm and 400mm. Whilst we like the idea of starting with more mature trees, we are concerned that the larger trees would be more difficult to espalier having already grown in a normal freestanding shape.

    We would very much appreciate your advice as to whether we should start with the 200mm size or the more mature larger trees.

    • I would buy the 200mm size trees as long as they are young and healthy and not pot bound. There are three good reasons for buying the smaller size. (1) The younger trees ill be more supple and therefore easier to train. (2) Smaller plants are a lot easier to establish than larger ones and the risk of digging a ‘sump’ into the clay when planting are lessened. (3) They will be cheaper to buy which will save you money! Check that they are ‘budded’ or ‘grafted’ before you buy them. Bear in mind that Meyer is a smaller grower than the other three. A good rootstock will give you a better plant. ‘Flying Dragon’ rootstock will give a smaller growing plant. Citrus trees have fine, shallow roots which can dry out easily. Ensure you have a good mulch, but not against the trunk as it will cause rotting of the bark. An old pair of jeans makes a great mulch and can be covered with other mulch if required. All the best.

  6. Hi. I have a mature Ruby Grapefruit tree that needs to be moved to make way for some work on the house.
    Would it be possible to reestablish it as an espalier?

    • It can be moved with care – in late Spring if in a cold area. Prune it heavily leaving the branches that you can train to espalier wires. Root prune around drip line a week or two before. Dig as deep and wide as possible, gently lift/roll root ball onto hessian, tie up, move to new site. Plant slightly raised so trunk does not sit in water. Water in with Seaweed, keep moist for 2 weeks at least. Keep checking on snails.

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