Espalier is the art of grafting and pruning trees to create a two-dimensional or single plane pattern. The practice dates back to the Middle Ages, and possibly even to ancient Egypt. The trees were planted against the walls of the castle for decoration and so as not to invade the open space of the courtyard. The term espalier originally referred to the frame or trellis on with the tree was trained to grow. Today espalier refers to both the horticultural technique and the plant.
Espaliered plants can be high maintenance. Plant selection, your degree of patience, skill, and creativity should be carefully considered before accepting the challenge.
Selecting the correct tree for your situation is important. A pear tree will require a large wall, grows fast and will require more pruning. A smaller, slower-growing variety may be better suited to you and your garden.
Deciding whether to grow fruit trees or not. Certain types adapt better than others, however any fruit tree will work. Figs, apples, and pears work best espaliered. Peaches, apricots, cherries, and plums do quite well also, however they are generally happier in a less structured lifestyle.
Planting in the colder regions will be more successful if you use a south facing wall, which allows for reflection of more sunlight and retains more heat overnight.
Select a cultivar that has been grafted onto dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock, and produces a large number of spurs. Grafting only affects the size of the plant, not the amount of fruit produced or the size of the leaves.
Pruning is required to ensure a continuous crop.
Site selection should be done with the lines of your house in mind, blank walls or fences, and a simple background. The best location is usually on a south or east facing wall, in the same soil and sunlight you would provide under normal growing conditions.
Select a small one gallon container plant from your local nursery. The fruit tree should be a single stem with no branches, or very few side branches.
Prepare the soil as you normally would for the tree you have chosen. Plant 6 to 10 inches from the wall to allow for circulation, root growth, and pest control. Plant the tree at the same depth it was growing in the container, cover with 2 to 3 inches of pine bark mulch, and water well. When the plant is established you can begin to prune it sparingly. Excessive pruning too soon in the life of the tree will delay new root growth.
Designing the shape of your espalier tree, should reflect your personality and the décor of your garden. Techniques range from very simple, to extremely complicated. A drawing on paper will help you determine the size and shape of your espalier, and will influence the material you will need to construct the trellis. A frame in the shape of your chosen design may be helpful in training your tree.
Construction of the trellis should be of material sturdy enough to hold the weight of the fully grown tree and the fruit it will produce.
Pruning and training are a continuous effort. Major pruning is done in late winter to early spring; this will simulate new growth. Pruning in mid-summer will have a dwarfing effect, and pruning should not be done in late summer. Branches are more flexible in the summer and easier to train, only the ones not needed for the design should be removed. Side shoots should about 12 inches long before they are trimmed. Branches which will be part of the design can be tied to the trellis with a soft string or twist tie. The string should be removed as the stem grows.
With a little time, patience, and creativity, your garden and espaliered fruit tree will be the talk of the town, while you enjoy the fruits of your labor.