An espaliered plant is one that has been trained to grow in one plane such as flat against a wall or fence or supported by a trellis. It has only two dimensions, height and width without depth. In the 17th Century, 'espalier' originally referred to the frame or trellis on which the plant was trained. Today, espalier refers to both the two-dimensional tree or shrub or the horticultural technique of actually training the plant.

This has been a common practice in Europe for centuries where people used it to grow fruit in small spaces. George Washington used them at Mt Vernon for fruit production. Espaliered plants are used in today's landscape for both function and beauty. In an area where space is limited or where a plant is needed to decorate a large blank wall, the espalier is most helpful.

Espaliers are also used to provide an accent plant and to give a tracing effect against a wall in the winter season. They are great for spaces where there available room for a tall plant but no room for something with a large diameter. In addition, they may be used to soften the effect of a brick wall, large fences or other feature.

Study the lines and shapes of the house or other landscape features to make sure that the espalier fits properly. Keep it in proportion to its surrounding landscape features and place it so that maintenance is not difficult. An untrimmed espalier will tend to detract from the landscape appearance.

As in the case of weeping trees, espaliers are an oddity. They are used to show a uniqueness in form in the landscape. Therefore, they should not be overused or they will loose this trait and defeat their purpose. One or two in a garden space are usually enough to do the job. Of course, if your goal is simply to grow fruit, the more the merrier.

Espalier displays can come in a wide variety of forms and structures. Names of these types include candelabra, chevron, tiered, cordon, basket weave, Belgian weave, fan, pinnate and palmate shapes among others. The choice for your landscape depends on how much space you have, the amount of space available and the amount of effort you are willing to commit to for maintenance over coming years.

For most of the more intricate designs, you will need to put up some temporary guides to help you for the first few years. These can be made of wires stretched out or bamboo canes tied into the proper form. In some cases, the use of manufactured trellis work will do the trick.

Whatever the guide you use, it needs to be held in place well enough to be able to support the branches as they are growing. Remember, that to get the basic form of your espalier in place may take several growing seasons so the guides must not be unattractive for your landscape during that time.

Originally, espalier was used to produce fruit in European gardens but, with the introduction of dwarf trees, the popularity of espalier declined. Today, most espaliers are primarily ornamental with a secondary role of fruit production.

So, in addition to fruit trees (covered below), a fairly wide range of woody plants may be successfully used for espalier. Generally speaking, the plant needs to be fairly fast growing since you don't want to wait too long for the results. It also needs to have a lot of what are called adventitious buds waiting to break and grow. This is why most conifer species are not grown as espaliers. The species has to be adaptable to pruning and, it needs to be fully hardy for your climate zone.

Other factors to consider would include:

Age. When starting an espalier, plants (trees or shrubs) should be young and supple. They need to have limbs that easily bend without breaking. Stiffly-grown young trees, unless they meet the design requirements, may need to be pruned to the ground and started all over again.

Flexibility. A shrub or tree that produces long, flexible branches is well suited for training as an espalier. Avoid plants with stiff branches.

Height. Consider the mature height of a plant when selecting one for a particular location. Of course, by pruning, you can regulate the height of the plant, but, if you want it to grow 20 feet up the side of the house, it has to be a plant that will reach that size. Select a plant whose mature height closely matches the height of the area where it is to be espaliered.

Apple, pear and peach trees are probably the most commonly grown plants for espaliers. They can be dated back to Roman times when they were used in small courtyards to produce fruit for the household. Today, we have many more options available in our fruit trees and we need to consider some of these in selecting types for espalier.

  1. Dwarf Varieties - Since it is the aim of espalier to keep plants smaller than they would normally be, it only makes sense to start with trees that already want to be small. Many varieties of fruit trees grafted on to a dwarfing rootstock are available. In espalier, these trees will require relatively less pruning to stay in form than would larger, seedling trees. Remember that certain fruit such as apples, pears and others require more than one variety in order to bear fruit. Check this out with your nursery source when you purchase the trees.
     

  2. Disease Resistance - One of the key factors in choosing a variety of fruit to grow should be its resistance to common diseases. Apple cultivars such as Jonafree, Liberty and others are resistant to the fungal disease, apple scab. This will cut back or eliminate any spraying you may do for this disease. Pear cultivars resistant to the bacterial disease, fireblight, should also be selected.
     

  3. Insect Control - If you hope to have top quality fruit at the end of the season, you will need to control insect pests such as apple maggot, codling moth, plum curculio and others. Whether you choose to do this with a typical chemical spray program or work on organic approaches, something will need to be done to protect the fruit. Otherwise, you will get poor quality, "wormy" apples, peaches and pears.
     

  4. Pruning - Pruning fruit trees is fundamentally different from pruning for ornamental features only. Care must be taken to avoid removing fruiting spurs or flower buds if you want fruit. This may result in a slightly less ornamentally sound espalier.
     

  5. Fertilizer - Fruit trees need to grow at a moderate rate and need to not be over fertilized. This would lead to excessive vegetative growth at the expense of fruiting. Too much vegetative growth can also encourage certain diseases such as fireblight.

Since an espalier has only two dimensions of height and width, it needs some help in supporting itself. You may have existing surfaces that may be used to support your espalier. Fences and walls are the most common landscape locations for espalier. Eye bolts may be anchored to the surface and wire is strung between them to support the desired design of the espalier.

Another common approach is to build a wire trellis system for the espalier. This involves sinking posts into the ground and stringing heavy gauge wire between them at the levels where you want to string the branches. Be sure to anchor the posts well to be able to support the weight of the tree over coming years.

In general, the typical requirements for planting a particular type of tree should be the same whether you are planting it in a landscape site or as an espalier. The soil should be tested to be sure that it is in the proper pH range for that species. Light conditions of shade versus full sun should also be considered. Fruit trees need full sun in order to bear properly. Other plants may be able to thrive in shaded sites. Check out your plant's requirements and match them to your site before you make your purchase.

Normally, when planting a tree in the landscape, the recommendation is to avoid adding any amendments such as compost to the planting hole. This is because a normal sized tree will eventually send roots out far away from the trunk in search of water and nutrients. A 50 foot tall tree may have roots that go out 50 feet or more. Therefore, on a practical level, it is impossible for the average homeowner to amend enough soil to make a difference over the long life of the tree.

Espaliered trees, however, are artificially kept small. Therefore, there root systems will also be much smaller than a standard sized trees. With this in mind, it might be advantageous to amend soils down to about 18 inches and out to a spread of about 3 feet from the trunk. Large amounts of organic matter such as compost will help improve both clay and sandy soils.

The hole for the plant needs to be close to the support system. It should be directly beneath the wall wires, fence or trellis work that it will be trained upon. This may be only a foot or so away from walls or fences.

A very important factor in planting any tree is that it should be placed in the soil at the same depth at which it was growing at its previous site. If it is a container plant and the root mass is 12 inches high, then the hole should be 12 inches deep. For bareroot trees, check to see where on the trunk the soil stain is located and bury it no deeper than that depth. Planting trees too deep is, perhaps, the key killer of transplant trees.

Dig the hole as wide as possible (up to 3 feet away from the trunk) and amend this soil with organic matter. Then refill the hole with a mixture of the amendments and the original soil from the hole.

Water the planted tree thoroughly to help settle out any air pockets. Place an inch or two of wood chips, shredded bark or other mulch around the base of the tree. Keep the soil moist but not waterlogged for the next season or two.

Sculptors often say that the statue is already there inside the block of granite. All you have to do is chip off everything that is not the statue and you are done.

Well, to a certain degree, it is similar with turning a tree into an espalier. You determine what you want it to look like and cut off everything that does not contribute to that look.

Once you have planted your tree, stand back and take a survey of the situation. Depending on the design form you have selected, you should have your guides in place on the support system. In some cases, you will merely cut the tree off at the lowest wire and begin training on buds that form to the sides of the cuts. At times, a unique branching of the tree you purchased will help you determine how to proceed and what to cut off.

Over the growing season as the new growth emerges on your tree, begin to bend the stems to conform with the outline of your guide. Loosely attach the flexible stems to the guide with twist ties, ribbons, discarded nylons or other materials that will not scrape the bark.

Use several fasteners along the length of the branch to overcome its normal desire to head up toward the sun. Once you are satisfied that the basic "skeleton" of your espalier is defined, cut off twigs that are growing outside of the guidelines. This is a gradual process so don't think that you have to get it all perfect at one time. It will take two or three seasons to get most plants into the proper form. So, just snip a little now and a little in a week or two and a little periodically throughout the season.

NOTE: Be sure to check your fasteners frequently throughout the growing season. It is surprising how fast the limbs will grow in circumference and, before you know it, the bark will grow around the fastener and may girdle the branch. So, you may need to loosen or rewrap a fastener a couple of times during the summer to prevent girdling.
 

Some larger nurseries carry plants that they have already started to train for espalier. Bareroot fruit trees are also sometimes sold with the basic training of the branches already formed. These plants may be purchased and planted on your site to get a head start.

Of course, there is a cost to this and these plants will be several times more expensive than starting with a bareroot tree or container grown plant. It also limits you to the design forms that happen to be available.

Having an espalier in your landscape is a commitment similar to having a dog or a cat. It is a lot of fun to get the cute little puppy or kitten but then, you have to take care of it for the next 15 or 20 years. This is very similar to the case with an espalier.

An espalier is grown primarily to form a "tracing" effect on its background. You have a particular form or shape that you want to create and maintain. Unfortunately, Mother Nature will be fighting you every step of the way.

As soon as you get done pruning your plant to the shape that you want, nature will encourage it to send out stems and leaves into places that will defeat your purpose. To overcome this and maintain your design intent, you will need to keep on top of the pruning of your espalier. The longer you allow it to get out of hand, the less acceptable it will look to you.

This doesn't mean you have to be out there every day snipping away but you will want to take a look at it every week or two with pruning shears in hand. The smaller the cuts you need to make, the better the espalier will appear. Letting it go for a long time will result in a lot of overgrowth. Sure, you can remove it but it will not have the shape and finesse that small but frequent pruning will bring.

You will need to keep the fasteners on the branches for several growing seasons. They need to be loosened and changed periodically to avoid girdling.

Plants Reported to be used for Espalier
Abelia floribunda - Mexican Abelia
Acer palmatum - Japanese Maple
Camellia japonica and vars. - Common camellia
Cercis canadensis - Eastern Redbud
Cercis chinensis - Chinese Judastree
Chaenomeles sp. and vars. - Japanese Quince
Citrus lemonea - Lemon
Cornus florida - Flowering Dogwood
Cornus kousa - Japanese Dogwood
Cornus mas - Cornelian-cherry
Cotoneaster sp.- Cotoneaster
Cotoneaster horizontalis - Rockspray Cotoneaster
Euonymus alata - Winged Euonymus
Ficus carica - Fig
Forsythia intermedia - Forsythia
Ilex cornuta 'Burford' - Burford holly
Ilex crenata vars. - Japanese Holly
Jasminum nudiflorum - Winter Jasmine
Juniperus chinensis 'Pfltzeriana' - Pfitzer juniper
Laburnum watereri - Waterer Labumnum
Magnolia grandiflora - Southern Magnolia
Magnolia x soulangiana - Saucer Magnolia
Magnolia stellata - Star Magnolia
Malus sp. - Apple, Crabapple
Malus atrosanguinea - Carmine Crabapple
Osmanthus fragrans - Sweet Osmanthus
Philadelphus coronarius - Sweet Mock-orange
Photinia serrulata - Chinese Photinia
Pinus parviflora glauca - Japanese White Pine
Poncirus trifoliata - Hardy Orange
Prunus persica - Peach
Prunus serrulata - Oriental Cherry
Prunus suhhirtella 'Pendula' - Weeping Higan Cherry
Pyracantha sp. - Firethorn
Pyrus comniunis - Pear
Solanum seaforthianum - Brazilian Nightshade
Stewartia koreana - Korean Stewartia
Tamarix ramosissima - Five Stamen Tamarisk
Taxus sp. - Yew
Viburnum plicatum - Doublefile Viburnum
 

Note: We have provided some general information and observations on this topic aimed at the home gardener. Before you take any serious action in your landscape, check with your state's land grant university's Cooperative Extension Service for the most current, appropriate, localized recommendations.

 

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