University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
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
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
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
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
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
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
above a bud. Heading cuts are those in
which a branch is pruned back, which stimulates buds further down the
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
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
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).