Espalier Fruit Trees – The Definitive Guide

Horizontal espalier fruit tree trained on stone wall.

Espalier is a horticultural technique by which trees and other plants are pruned and grown on flat vertical surfaces such as walls or a trellises. The word also refers to the plant that has been espaliered.

Though it is primarily a decorative technique that is used to add more charm to a garden, it is also a functionally useful technique for gardens with limited space.

SEE ALSO: 40 Landscaping Ideas for Backyard and Front Yard

Origins and History

Though this modern term originated in 17th century Europe, the technique itself has been known and used since the earliest recorded history. We can see espaliered plants in Egyptian tomb paintings from 1400 BC, where we see fig trees growing in this fashion in the royal garden.

The ancient Romans used the technique too. However, its popularity in Europe during the 17th century, where it was used in castle gardens among other places, made it fashionable once again. Today this technique is used by people from all over the world.

How to Espalier

To apply this technique to a plant, one needs to plant it beside a wall or some other vertical plane and control its growth so that it grows only in that plane. Plants growth is controlled and directed in different styles as they grow in a single plane. Some of the more popular styles are: tiered, cordon, candelabra, basket weave, pinnate, diamond motif and palmate.

Whether the support is a wall, fence or a trellis, the plant should not be grown more than six to nine inches from its support. It is easier to train young plants because their branches are easier to bend and control. If you are in the northern hemisphere, it is not recommended to use a north-facing wall as a support, because any plant grown on such a wall may not get sufficient sunlight. Similarly, if you are in Australia or some other country in the southern hemisphere, it is not recommended to use a south-facing wall.

Espalier Fruit Trees and Ornamental Trees

Though this technique can be applied on different types of plants, whether they are deciduous, fruiting, evergreen or ornamental, some plants are more amenable to it than others. Apple trees, tomatoes, pear trees, citrus plants such as Valencia orange, Kaffir lime and lemon trees are some of the more popular plants to espalier. Dwarf fruit trees are also commonly used with this technique. Ornamental plants that are espaliered include camellias and bougainvillea. With deciduous plants, it is necessary to make sure that they look good in winter too.

Espaliered plants are used for ornamentation as well as functional reasons. Originating, as it is known today, in medieval European gardens, it is popular all over the world today. Plants can be espaliered on vertical supports such as walls, trellis and fences. Not only does it make plants look beautiful, it does so while it saves you precious space in your garden, practically restricting plants to just two dimensions rather than three. From apple trees to ornamental plants such as camellias, many different plants lend beautifully to this technique.

Comments

  1. This is so cool, where I work we have a brick wall that is just nasty looking with broken and cracked mortar etc. and I think if we could do something like this it would improve the look 100%. We are in an old part of town and that is actually a whole part of the theme of the area so I don’t want to fix it to good, if you know what I mean.

  2. I think this looks really cool but what does this do to your foundation when the tree or what ever is planted next to it gets so big? Tree roots grow out right not down so you are going to have them growing into your foundation right? If that is not the case then I think this would be a great way to make a beautiful garden.

  3. Why go to all the trouble of erecting a trellis and then frequently having to pinch and snip a plant to keep it in shape? Because a well-grown espaher represents a happy commingling of art and science, resulting in a plant that pleases not only the eye, but also the palate. This form of gardening makes a lot of sense to me for those living in the city.

  4. This is a very cool way to do landscaping and I would love to try this at my home as soon as I possibly can. You have done a great job explaining what it is and how it works thank you so much for the information. I am going to go to a nursery as soon as possible and see if I can find anything like this. Thank you for the idea I will comment again with an update.

  5. I did not realize that developing a green thumb could be so artistically fullfiling. Some of the espalier photos I have seen are really amazing. Without knowing any better, I thought these types of arrangements required an expert landscape artist, but now that I have read a bit about the actual techniques, it does not seem so difficult anymore.

  6. Gardening books make it seem so straightforward: If you have a flat, bare acreage, lucky you! Simply choose your paddock, orient and then dig your beds – exactly as the book describes! Easy-peasy! But we suburbanites have annoying impediments like houses and sheds that take up valuable planting space and cast shade, completely ruining the ideal layout of our productive garden! In this case Espalier gardens seem ideal.

  7. We have a limited space in the fenced in back yard of the townhouse. My mother decided to plant the seeds from a cantaloupe she bought from the grocery store. In case you don’t know, those fruits grow out of vines and once the vines started spreading, she hung them vertically along the wooden fence and the vines took. This created space to grow other vegetables. So this technique is a great space saver.

  8. The more research I do into the subject of Espalier – by watching videos and photos and reading articles like this one – the more appreciation I am developing for this style of gardening which I consider an art form. Some of the arrangements that people assemble are so stylish, they belong in magazines like Home & Gardens. It’s actually relaxing to look at espalier foliage.

  9. Today, home gardeners have embraced espaliers as unique garden features. There is no doubt they are ideal for small garden spaces or patios where a tall plant is needed. Espaliers needn’t be limited to walls and fences. They can be grown on wire frames and used as hedges, screens, garden dividers, or borders. I’m amazed how one espaliered plant may be used instead of a garden ornament and displayed as a piece of living art.

  10. For me, nothing is more quintessentially French gardening than the art of espaliering fruit trees. Combining form and function, aesthetics with micromanagement–in short, fiddling with fruit trees to make them as productive and beautiful as possible. While I am no fan of foundation shrubs pruned into restricted gumdrops, I find espaliered plants as graceful as those shorn-off yews are clumsy. Not only that, the practice of espalier has numerous benefits for the fruit tree.

  11. My interest in espalier began when my wife, Beth, and I visited Mount Vernon. I remember being taken by the way the paths in the vegetable garden were lined with plants shaped into low hedges. As I bent down to inspect them, I discovered they were actually espaliered pear trees that bore fruit. Since then, I have started to read more about this technique. Thank you for this information.

  12. I would think that the art of growing espalier and cordon fruit trees involves an understanding of how fruit trees grow and how they bear fruit naturally. From what I have read, training any fruit tree involves taking control of its growing form by removing the apical bud. The apical bud being the fat bud at the end of the leader (most upright) branch.

  13. Well being as I can’t get anything to grow in my back yard I don’t think this would stand much of a chance either. This is a really great idea for landscaping and it really looks cool but wouldn’t it be a good idea to have really decent soil first? Our soil is like clay and as I said we can’t manage to get anything to grow there.

  14. I think this is the most awesome thing I have seen in a long time as far as landscaping goes. I would like to do this on the back side of my home because that is where we spend all of our time as a family. This is so interesting and I am going to see if I can find a local nursery that can help me with this come spring time.

  15. It seems to me that Espalier has considerable merit in todays urban garden design. And the practice was originally used in the old world to conserve space in small orchards and gardens. It’s interesting that today’s espaliers are mostly used for introducing a decorative accent in the landscape. But regardless of its use, it remains a great space saver if you are growing fruits or even vegetables.

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