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.

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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.