You may or may not have heard about espalier: it’s a niche gardening concept and the practice is much more popular in Europe than in America. But espalier is certainly worth learning about and even attempting in your own garden!
Espalier is a time-tested technique of laterally pruning trees–especially fruit trees– for ornamental and functional purposes. Espalier fruit trees can take several different shapes and sizes and tend to be more productive, and are overall much healthier, than regular fruit trees.
Cultivators of espalier trees have been around for centuries, and although modern espalier might look a bit different than in the past, the basic principles are still the same. By carefully pruning and training tree branches, you can create stunning displays that stand out in the garden.
Espalier fruit trees are a great way to add a unique and aesthetically pleasing touch to your garden. If you’re looking to cultivate a beautiful garden with the help of espalier trees, there are a few things that you need to know before you get started.
What are espalier fruit trees?
The French word espalier is used in English as both a noun and a verb. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word can mean “a plant (such as a fruit tree) trained to grow flat against a support (such as a wall)” or “a railing or trellis on which fruit trees or shrubs are trained to grow flat.” But the same word is also an action word that describes the process of training a plant to grow in a particular way.
Espalier is a method of training a tree to grow horizontally against a wall or on a trellis—essentially, on the same plane as the surface it rests against. Espalier trees aren’t really two-dimensional, but they certainly give the impression of flatness.
This technique of pruning trees was first developed in Europe during the Middle Ages when grand and intricate gardens were incredibly common. But espalier trees had another, equally important function–the compact branches and stems were a major space-saver inside castles and walled gardens.
What are the benefits of espalier fruit trees?
Espalier trees add structure, aesthetic beauty, and interest to any garden. The exposed trunks and branches create a visual focal point that complements nearby landscape structures. In addition, espalier fruit trees may even offer some reprieve from wind and sun and often have higher fruit yields than untrained trees.
When done right, espalier fruit trees can serve as a kind of living fence. The sturdy trunks and interlocking horizontal branches provide a structure that–while it probably won’t keep the deer out–creates a visual barrier or border.
Espalier is an art form, and a primary reason for pruning fruit trees in this way to is showcase natural beauty. Espalier fruit trees are living sculptures that only add value to any garden, whether they stand alone or frame a wall.
Aside from being visually attractive, the espalier pruning technique has the advantage of being compact. Espalier fruit trees take up less space than traditional trees, while still producing large quantities of high-quality fruit. Their smaller size is great for tight spaces, and they are easier to care for (and harvest from) because the branches can be trained in a certain pattern.
Professional growers and orchardists have found that espalier fruit trees are more productive than unpruned fruit trees. The vigorous pruning encourages the trees to focus their energy on fruit production rather than vertical growth, resulting in more–and sweeter–fruits.
Espalier fruit trees are also known for being long-lived, perhaps because they are so well-cared for or maybe just because of the pruning itself. Cutting away unnecessary branches actually opens up branches to better airflow, so pest and disease transmission between plants is much less.
Not only do espalier fruit trees naturally have a stronger defense against pests and diseases, but their unique growth habit actually makes the trees a little hardier than they seem at first glance. An article written by Susan Mahr and published by the University of Wisconsin – Madison claims that espalier trees will thrive in colder climates than their unpruned counterparts.
When planted next to a south-facing wall, the slightly warmer microclimate (the wall radiates heat and provides shelter) may allow some plants or cultivars to be planted in colder regions than they would normally be able to survive or fruit (because the season is a little too short).
Many growers love espalier fruit trees for their look alone; the structure they offer the landscape and the seasonal bounty of fresh fruit are added bonuses.
Types of espalier fruit trees
Any shrub or tree with long, supple branches is a good choice for espalier, but fruit trees are favored as these cultivars are both ornamental and produce food.
Apple and pear trees are popular choices for designs that require some structure. Peach, fig, and cherry trees are also good candidates for espalier. Plums and apricots also work well but are better suited to more delicate shapes.
Espalier can take a few different forms. Mahr identifies six common patterns used in espalier landscaping in her article for the University of Wisconsin – Madison:
The French word translates to English as “cord,” and this traditional design very much resembles a rope. This popular shape, in which branches grow horizontally from a single stem, is known for being particularly productive. Cordon is a very strong design, and can even be used to create living fences.
- Palmetto Verrier
This style of espalier takes on an overall U-shape, as horizontal branches are trained vertically in concentric arcs. This design looks striking against walls.
This shape is characterized by a main stem with branches angled at 45 degrees. This espalier is most often used with compact trees to fill out smaller spaces and walls.
You guessed it: this one looks like a candelabra. This design is similar to Palmetto Verrier but is slightly different in that there is more branching on secondary stems.
The easiest of all espaliers to maintain, because there is no particular shape.
- Belgian Fence
Multiple trees are pruned in a V-shape and are trained to intertwine diagonally, to form a lattice-like structure.
Training espalier fruit trees in 5 easy steps
While certainly not the easiest gardening task, there is a methodology behind espalier that makes it an achievable art.
- Gather your supplies.
You’ll need a clean and sharp pair of snips or garden shears. You’ll also need to gather materials for a trellis: t-posts, tomato stakes, and fencing or netting will work well for a trellis, depending on the size of your tree. Make sure you have twine on hand to tie the branches to the trellis.
- Choose a tree to espalier.
The perfect candidates for espalier have woody stems and long, flexible branches. If you can start with a tree that is at least a couple of years old with a well-developed root system. Transplant the tree to its permanent home and water it deeply.
- Attach the tree to the trellis.
Build a trellis to support the tree (or you can use a flat surface like a wall instead). Leave at least six to eight inches between the tree and the trellis. Use twine to tie the branches to the trellis, but be careful not to tie the branches too tightly, or the twine may cut into the tender bark.
- Prune the tree.
The best time to espalier fruit trees is in the late winter or early spring when the tree is still dormant. Choose your desired shape, and select one or more leaders to make the shape. Cut away any weak or damaged branches–this will allow the plant to put more energy towards its strongest branches.
- Perform ongoing care and maintenance.
Monitor the tree as it grows, pruning branches back into the desired shape yearly. Tie new growth to the trellis as needed, and harvest the fruit frequently to encourage more robust yields. When old growth holds the shape on its own, it is safe to remove the twine.
Espalier fruit trees can be a great addition to any landscape, offering structure, beauty, and higher fruit yields. There are numerous types of espalier designs to suit every style, and while training and pruning take time, it is an art form that many find enjoyable.
All in all, espalier fruit trees are an ideal choice for gardeners looking to cultivate a garden that is both visually appealing and practical. As long as you are prepared to put in the extra work and attention necessary to keep them healthy and in shape, espalier fruit trees can be an attractive and productive addition to your garden.
With a little bit of practice and patience, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better way to spruce up your yard. Espalier fruit trees are definitely worth the work, as there’s hardly anything so rewarding as picking fresh fruit from a beautifully-trained tree.
“Espalier Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster, 10 January 2023, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/espalier. Accessed 2 March 2023.
Mahr, Susan. “Espalier – Wisconsin Horticulture.” Wisconsin Horticulture, https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/espalier/. Accessed 2 March 2023.
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When not writing content or growing flowers in her native Virginia, you can find Sarah hiking a long-distance trail deep in the woods. Follow along with Sarah’s adventures at http://sarahcolliecreative.com.