Aug 31, 2022

Flat Trees? Let me Espalier!

I’ve always been fascinated by espalier, or the technique of training trees to grow up against a flat surface like a wall or fence.  

This amazing space-saving technique that comes from the Old World European gardens, allowed people to not only decorate their walls with pretty greenery but also to define spaces in the garden.

Espalier is a French word that comes from the Italian “spalliera” which means “something to rest the shoulder (spalla) on”.  The word originally was only used for the trellis or structure that the branches rested on, but eventually it became the name of the growing technique itself.  The word Spalliera comes from the Latin for Spatula, which as you know is flat.  Isn’t language so interesting?

Espalier along a wall

As you’ve probably figured out, when something about gardening fascinates me, I research it.  I read about it, I try to seek it out in real life to see it first hand, and I ask around.

I live in a suburban town just outside of Tampa.  While my yard is bigger now than when I lived in Tampa proper, it is still a tight squeeze to try to fit fruit trees on my property.  If I can successfully pull off espalier, I could grow more fruit in less space!

And that’s why I’m sharing this with you, my friends, because if you’re reading this, you’re probably in some part of suburbia near some metropolitan area, and you might need this info to get your own orchard started!  Let’s dive in, shall we?

Apple tree espalier

Initially, the espalier technique was a practical way to get fruit to ripen more quickly. The fruit trees would be grown against masonry or stone walls, and during the warm months the sun would heat the stone or brick and cause the plants to grow more quickly, and the fruit to ripen faster.  This is especially useful in climates where fruit doesn’t usually grow well, like colder climates.

Since we don’t have to worry about that here, the land of sunshine, really we can use espalier for decoration or as an efficient use of space.  You can also use Espalier as a leafy separator “screen”, like along a driveway or carport, for a little privacy that light and breezes can still pass through.

Fast-growing trees are best for this growing technique, and the willingness to take some pruners to your plant friend is a must.  I know, I feel the guilt too, I cringe a little every time I prune something. It is the pruning, though, that makes espalier really work!

(Think of it this way too…you could always try to root your healthiest cuttings…have some rooting hormone and pots with soil ready as you trim! And then, you’ll have some free plants!)

Two-dimensional espalier of spring blooming tree

Even though espalier has traditionally been used for fruit, you don’t *have* to use it that way.  You can do flowers, like Rose of Sharon, Magnolias, weeping Yaupon holly, and more.

You can also choose apples, peaches, plums, figs, and pears to do this with, I would definitely make sure the type you choose will grow in your Ag zone.  What about tropical and subtropical fruits, like starfruit (carambola), mango, loquat, guava, and citrus trees?  Papayas wouldn’t really work, they’re a single stalk with very few actual branches, and bananas are technically a grass, not a tree, so that wouldn’t work either..  I think Moringa would be very pretty!

Another espalier to think about – your cane fruits like raspberry, blackberry, tayberry.  How cool would that be to make a fence out of beautiful cane fruits?  You could actually do it with blueberries too.

a blackberry espalier fence

Of course, as with any planting, you have to remember the rule of “right plant right place”.  Fruit requires 6-8 hours of sunlight to fruit properly in most cases, so putting an espalier of a fruit tree on a north-facing wall or fence will not work. 

In the same line of thinking, don’t place a free-standing espalier (not against a wall) where it will shade other plants that need light.  Remember that planting taller plants to the North of shorter plants will keep your tall plants from depriving the shorter plants of light.

An old-growth espalier helps camouflage a wall that otherwise might look neglected

Now, any espalier is going to need some sort of support.  Most people use wires to support the branches and to “create the shape”.   If you’re using a wall as the support, you can use a system of lag shields and threaded eyebolts to string the wire through.  You’ll need about 4 inches of space between the wall and the wire, so keep that in mind when you’re choosing your lag bolts.

If you’re doing a free-standing espalier, you’ll need to set up a framework and run your wires through the framing in the shape that you want to make. 

Popular wiring shapes are the “horizontal cordon”, which is a very traditional look, the Candelabra, which looks exactly like it sounds, and the Belgian fence, which is a great harlequin shape that makes a nice screen.  You can also just put large-hole fencing, like 4″ x 4″ openings, or even Cattle Panels will work (be aware that most cattle panels have different size holes in different parts of the panels).

Plums on a wire-supported espalier setup

OK, so there is a lot that goes into pruning these.  I read a lot of articles about espalier to find one that I liked the pruning information.  Here’s the article I found that I like the best, but there are a lot of resources out there.  My blog would be WAY too long if I went into it right now, and frankly, I’m researching this so that I can try it (and maybe you’ll try it with me).

I don’t like writing about the technical details of things unless I’ve actually done it.  SO, in a future article, after I’ve done this, I’ll throw you some tips and tricks and particulars that I learned!  I have a cattle panel trellis I’m going to try this on, and I’ll keep you posted!

Other Espalier Resources:

I also like this Espalier article from UF’s IFAS program, the picture it shows is a nice Candleabra espalier.

A super-simplified Espalier process explanation by Better Homes & Gardens here.

Here’s one from our friends at Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Southern Living has their own article on Espalier as well. 

espalier growing on a beautiful rustic house

As you may (or may not) know, Fall is a great time to plant trees, and so it’s in the Fall that I contemplate planting trees the most. Then I start thinking about all the trees I want and have so little space for!  Which led me to “how do I plant more trees in the space I have?” Which then led me to espalier.  It’s a slippery slope, I tell you.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my “espalier” (explanation) of espalier and you have some ideas on whether or not you want to try it!  If you do, what tree do you want to grow, and what shape do you want to try?

Keep me posted!  And until next time, Keep Growing!

 

Marissa

 

P.S. I mentioned Rooting Cuttings in my article above – want to learn how to do that?  Check out my article from September of last year about Propagating with plant cuttings right here.

Like what you’re reading?  Check out some more!

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