es·pal·ier (from dictionary.com)
1. trellis or framework on which the trunk and branches of fruit trees or shrubs are trained to grow in one plane.
2. a plant so trained.
Personally, I like definition #2: a plant SO trained....if only, right?
The espaliered tree has its roots from centuries ago in Europe where it was very common to espalier a tree. This was especially done to fruit trees and you would find them beautifully espaliered against castle walls and hugging the walled cities.
There are many types of trees that do well with espaliering. Among them are Apples, Plums, Pears and Peach or Fig trees for warmer climates. Today we tackle the beautiful blooms and delicious fruits of the Apple Tree!
Step One: Choose your style
There are many different ways to espalier a tree. This can be done as a simple horizontal structure with branches simply reaching out on each side, to an elaborate lattice work of interwoven limbs.
Be creative with your design choice, but the more elaborate the design, the more time you will spend pruning and shaping. Draw out your design first; you can even draw it with chalk against the wall or fence where you will be planting your tree. The design I will be focusing on is perhaps the most simplistic for beginners: the Horizontal design. This design also lends itself well to espaliering with apple trees! It also forces more fruit spurs to develop, which means more fruit!
Step Two: Choose your Pick!
There seem to be endless varieties of apple trees to choose from these days, but the dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties work well for espaliering, especially for those of us with limited space. I love the look of the espaliered apple tree with it's beautiful and fragrant spring flowers!
My best advice for selecting your apple tree is to speak with your local nursery. They should have some knowledgeable people there that can tell you which trees grow best in your region. You will want to purchase a seedling (defined as 1-3 years old). Also look for varieties that are inherently disease resistant. The major apple diseases are apple scab, powdery mildew, and fire blight. Let the nursery expert know that you are looking to espalier an apple tree and ask them to help you with your selection. Here are some helpful questions you may want to consider asking them:
*Can this type be pruned a lot and still produce fruit?
*Does it need a pollinator,or is it self-fertilizing?
*How big will it get? (The term "dwarf" can mean it grows anywhere from 4 to 16 feet tall)
*How long does it need to recover after transplanting before beginning to prune/train?
*Does it require any special care?
*Are the apples TASTY?
Once making your selection, it's time to set it up! Follow the nurseries instructions for planting in the ground, and follow the next steps to get the espalier process started. If you will be espaliering your apple tree against a wall, be sure to plant it at least 6" away in order to allow for proper circulation. South or West facing locations with at least 6 hours of full sun are ideal, especially if you can do this against a brick wall, as the tree will benefit from the radiant heat. Also, for best results, allow it to recover after transplanting before doing any pruning or shaping; this can take 2-3 months depending on the tree's variety and the time of year you plant it.
Step Three: The Set-up
Once you bring your seedling home, let's make sure you have the proper set up in order to begin the espaliering process. Your tree will need a support structure as it learns to grow to the shape you want it in, as well as for when it begins to develop fruit (some trees will take 2-3 more years to produce fruit after planting them-so be patient)!
If you will be anchoring directly to an exterior wall or fence, you can use eye bolts, turnbuckles (these allow you to adjust the tension on the wire), and sturdy wire cable to set this up. It can take up to 3 years to fully espalier a tree, so you want to make sure you invest in the proper set up here.
If you want your apple tree in a different location, you can simply put sturdy posts in the ground in your desired location and string the wire between them. You can set this up for an orchard, or as a living fence, border, or focal point of your yard.
For the Horizontal espalier, set posts in the ground equidistant lengths from the trunk on each side. Then, drill holes and secure eye bolts at 16" intervals along the posts (fence/wall/lattice), starting your measurements from the ground up. Then, string your wire between them, connecting with turnbuckles so you can adjust the wire tension as needed for support as it grows. Here is a great video on a simple espalier setup: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2qb25W7c2Y
You can even create some extra space beneath or around your espalier to plant strawberries or other annuals/perennials around them.
Step Four: Shape it upShaping an espalier is quite simple, but can be slightly time intensive, depending on your design. For our horizontal shape, you will train the limbs that are nearest your wire to grow horizontally along its length. Tie the limbs onto the wire with garden tape to secure them in place. You will need to prune off the excess limbs in order to maintain your desired shape as it grows.
BASIC PRUNING PROCESS: Do the majority of pruning every year in late winter or early spring, while the plant is dormant. Remove branches that grow in the opposite direction from your chosen design, especially those that are growing out towards you, or those trying to stick out behind the design. Redirect the trees growth by pruning to the buds that face the direction you want the tree to grow. Small branches can be removed almost anytime during the year, as long as you don’t remove too much. Avoid pruning in late summer and early fall. Once your tree branches reach 'the end of the line' for your design, you can snip it off. Just keep in mind that pruning redirects growth significantly, and you don’t want to cut off the end of a branch until you are sure it’s as long as you need it to be.
For some quick espalier pruning tips (and a great description of espalier benefits), go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WnnqGpjA4EA
There are also a lot of good books out there about pruning in general, as well as some that include information on espalier-specfic pruning (not to mention the wealth of information available online these days).
Step Five: ENJOY IT!
While an espaliered fruit tree can takes some time in the beginning stages, it requires little maintenance for pruning once or twice yearly thereafter. These trees bring a stunning design to your landscape and delicious production to your garden that will surely be your favorite masterpiece in the years to come!
P.S. And don't forget to give all of that fallen fruit you weren't going to eat to your backyard chickens!