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Gardening in small spaces, as we know, can be a challenge, but clever gardeners are coming up with new approaches to maximizing yard space all of the time. Still, some planting dilemmas are difficult to solve without a lot of room. Take fruit trees, for example: how do you grow apples, pears, or plums with limited space? If you are willing to do the work, there is a small space solution for those wishing to start their own little orchards that will both conserve room and add loads of interest to your garden. Surprisingly, this trick isn’t any new approach—gardeners have been using these techniques since ancient times.
Espalier (es-PAHL-yay), a French term, comes from an Italian word meaning to rest or lean upon, which is the secret of growing a compact orchard. By using posts and wires to set up a trellis for a young fruit tree to “rest or lean upon,” the tree may be trained via meticulous pruning to follow the framework of the trellis and produce a two-dimensional compact tree that not only saves space, but also produces more fruit. This method also allows you to create incredible focal points in the garden and increase the functionality of your landscape.
Common Types of Espalier
What makes espalier so exciting is the wide variety of shapes you can achieve with your fruit trees once you’ve mastered the pruning technique to train them. These shapes can be as simple or ornate as you’d like, but whether they are designed with accessibility and functionality in mind or aesthetic value and creativity, your visitors will be delighted with this unusual garden feature.
The diagram below illustrates some of the more traditional and simple espalier designs that can be achieved with a simple post and wire trellis.
Figures A-D are examples of U-cordon espaliers. These types of espaliers are frequently referred to as candelabra espaliers for their resemblances to candle holders. Figure D shows a very popular candelabra design. Here is what it looks like:
Figures E and F show a Y and V-cordon design. While these are also very simple, when several of these trees are planted in a line, they can be layered to create an intricate and beautiful lattice design, called a Belgian fence. Of course, these are just traditional designs. Espalier trees can be trained into arbors, shade over seating, and customized to follow the architecture of buildings, walls, and fences. Some people have even trained fruit trees into hearts and letters!
Selecting a Espalier
The most common fruit trees used for espalier are apples, pears, and plums, though you can successfully espalier peaches, cherries, persimmons, and nectarines. Successful espalier of any kind of fruit will require some research—some fruits are only suitable for certain shapes of espalier, and some fruits aren’t suitable for it at all. Also, you will need to know how the tree fruits in order to prune and train it correctly, and ensure that your tree will be a vigorous producer in years to come. In general, you should select a very young and pliable tree that will bend easily when tied to the trellis. You should also select a spur-bearing tree that will form its fruit close to the main branches that will form your design. When you’ve chosen what type of fruit you’d like to grow and what type of design you’d like to have, select a tree with a shape and branches that might already fit your design or a whip that can be trained as it grows.
Constructing an Espalier and Planting Your Tree
Post height and spacing and wire length and spacing will depend on what type of fruit tree you want to plant. For dwarf and super dwarf trees, it is recommended that you place your posts in the ground between five and ten feet apart for two to four trees. Your post material should be thick, sturdy, and should be able to withstand several years in the ground. Embed your posts around two feet deep into the ground, and stabilize them with concrete. Drill corresponding holes into the insides of each post for hooks—these will be where you run your lengths of wire between the posts. It is generally recommended that these rows of wires be spaced eighteen to twenty-four inches apart. Install as many rows of wire as will suit your tree and your design. For more intricate designs, you may need to run lengths of vertical or diagonal wire, so you would need to install a top rail on your posts to bring wire down. It is a good idea when installing your wire that you consider using turnbuckles as this wire may become loose with age.
When you have your trellis built, you should center your tree or trees between the posts. If you are opting to grow your espaliered tree on or near a wall or structure, you should space your tree at least six inches away from it to prevent damage.
Pruning and Training (Apple/Plum/Pear)
If you have purchased a young tree with branches already, you can position the tree when planting such that two of the best branches may be easily bent down to the wire and trained. One leader branch should be left to continue to grow up vertically, and all other branches should be carefully removed. If your tree is a whip, you should position it so that a set of buds are at each wire up the length of the tree. As these buds grow into branches, they may be trained to grow along the wire with jute or a similar plant-friendly tie. When tying your branches to the wire, be sure to space your ties so that they hold your branches firmly in place. Remove any suckers or unwanted growth from the trunk as the main branches, or mother branches, grow along the wires. Eventually, water shoots will grow vertically from the mother branches. These should be snipped back to the first few leaves when they’ve reached about eight to ten inches long. Continue snipping them back repeatedly when they’ve grown again to create woody fruiting spurs on your mother branches. When the leader branch gets to the top of your trellis, you can trim off the tip to prevent more growth. In about three years, your tree should achieve the desired shape.