University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Spring News Article

ESPALIER FRUIT TREES

 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont


To “espalier” a fruit tree is to prune it so it grows vertically against a building, wall, fence, or decorative upright support.  Not only are such espaliers decorative, but also they save space in small gardens and make harvesting easier.  They require a bit more care than regular fruit trees, but this is not complicated and is a true blending of gardening art and science. 

Apples and pears lend themselves most readily of the fruit trees to espaliers as they are easy to train, especially the “spur types.”  A bit more difficult, but still possible, are peaches, nectarines, and apricots.  Cherries, plums, and quince can been espaliered but are even more difficult due to their bushy growth habit.  If you have a small garden area, or want to add fruits to a cottage garden, consider vine and bush fruits such as grapes, trailing blackberries, taller cultivars of gooseberries and currants, and even blueberries.  Just make sure the cultivars (cultivated varieties) are hardy in your area, and are taller, arching, or vining in nature.  Make sure if they require cross pollination (most fruit trees require this, or at least fruit better with a partner) that you buy at least two cultivars that flower at the same time.
           
Perhaps the earliest depictions are paintings in Egyptian tombs dating to 1400 BCE.  Later, in Roman times, fruit trees were espaliered on courtyard walls.  Espaliers are much more popular and seen today in Europe, where they’ve been grown since at least the 15th century.  It’s no wonder that some of the wealthy early colonists to America brought espaliers and this practice with them.  The word comes from the French word for shoulder, but also the Italian word for a place to rest one’s shoulder (spalla). 
           
There are many possible designs, the simplest being the vertical cordon.  This is simply a central trunk with side branches pruned back severely or even off completely.  This columnar habit is popular with apples, and is easy if you buy one of the columnar apple or peach cultivars.
           
Also easy is the informal upright, in which branches are trained upright but in no particular pattern.  In warmer climates you’ll see this done with figs, persimmons, and pomegranates. A variation on the informal, the fan shape, has branches trained upright in such a pattern.  Apricots, peaches, and figs lead themselves to the fan espalier.
           
The pattern I’ve seen most in European gardens and photos of these is the tiered espalier.  In this pattern, horizontal branches are trained in opposite directions along 2 or 3 tiers or levels of wire supports.  From its appearance you may see it called the horizontal T or horizontal cordon (the cordon being the main trained branch).  Then there are variations off of this pattern, a common one being the candelabra—ends of branches growing at roughly right angles upward similar to its namesake.  Apples and pears are most often used for tiered espaliers.
           
Espaliers also can be free standing, in which case the trellis should be oriented North to South for most even lighting.  Such “English fences,” as they are sometimes called, are good for visual screens.
           
So how do you get to all these designs?  Easiest is to buy an espalier at a nursery, or through an online source, already started.  If this is not possible, or you want to start from the beginning, choose a dwarf or semi-dwarf tree that will require less pruning than a standard size.  Young trees are much easier to train than older ones already established with their branches.  Here is where tree with branches not really best for an orchard would work well for an espalier.  Choose one that has a U-shape to branches, or with branches roughly opposite and horizontal.  For these, prune back the center stem and start with the horizontal branches.
           
Plant the tree as you would a fruit tree, keeping in mind if against a building to plant at least 18 inches away.  Air circulation behind the tree will keep detrimental dampness away from the building exterior.  Don’t plant under wide roof overhangs which will keep light and water from your tree.  Although a half-day of sun is needed, more is better. 
           
Although support wire for your trellis (easiest to install before you plant) can be affixed to, yet held out from with supports, buildings and walls, it is often easiest to erect a separate trellis.  This can be as simple as wooden or metal posts with wires strung horizontally between them.  Posts should be 7 to 8 feet high, set at least 2 feet in the ground, and anchored on the ends so they don’t lean toward the center.  Staple or affix 9-guage wire between the posts.  The first wire should be about 2-feet off the ground, the others up the posts at one-foot intervals. 
           
As with any fruit tree, there are two main types of pruning cuts.  For both, don’t leave stubs when pruning, and prune back to a main branch or just above a bud.  Heading cuts are those in which a branch is pruned back, which stimulates buds further down the stem to grow.  This is useful if the main horizontal branches are long enough, and you want more upright shoots to grow.  As the branches grow, prune off all that are growing in the wrong directions—the thinning cuts.  Make sure to follow the 2 C’s and 3 D’s of pruning—remove any branches that are crossed and crowded, and any that are dead, diseased, or otherwise damaged.

When the lateral branches are sufficiently long, gently pull them down and tie them to the wires.  Pulling down more vigorous branches, and pulling upward weaker ones, will result in more even growth. Use plastic ties or garden twine designed for plants; don’t use string that can cut into stems. Some use bamboo stakes to tie branches in a straight line, later pulling these down to affix to wires.  Check trees every week or so to prune as needed, until midsummer.  Except for pruning very short shoots, late summer pruning may stimulate growth that won’t harden before freezes. 
           
Have patience, as it will take a couple growing seasons or more for your espalier to start taking shape, and 5 to 10 years until at peak form.  Once it is in the desired pattern, you can remove the wire trellis if desired.  Since the tree will always want to grow more like a tree, you’ll need to keep up the pruning yearly.  Make sure when plants are 3 or more years old to not cut off too many of the fat flower buds—these will be next year’s flowers and fruit.
           
Pruning books and resources online provide more details on espaliers, and diagrams, including articles in Arnoldia—the magazine of the Arnold Arboretum near Boston (arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu).

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