and Photos by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist
wood-stemmed vine or rose can be trained to have the effect of
espalier as this Boston ivy that will be ablaze with color in the
fall at an entry to Bloemaendaal House at Lewis Ginter Botanical
If you are into low maintenance, this
garden technique may not be to your taste; but if order appeals to you, if
you are a nurturer who responds to tending and seeing striking results from
your tender, loving care, or if you are willing to approach the garden as an
artist ready to sculpt, read on.
Espalier is living garden sculpture that
transforms even a simple garden into an elegant work of art. Once
established, an espaliered plant is not at all fragile; in fact, it is much
healthier and more disease resistant than its natural-growing counterpart
and lives much longer, often more than 100 years. I have been in love with
the look ever since I took my children to see George Washington’s kitchen
. His low fence of espaliered dwarf apple trees is beautifully ornamental
and yet practically a model of efficiency.
Espalier comes to us from the French.
In the mid-1600s, Father Legendre of
, had been troubled by late frosts nipping the fruit buds of his
monastery’s garden. He noticed that the trees planted nearest the
monastery walls had the least bud kill, so he planted more near the walls.
As this need for close proximity began to present a space problem, he began
shearing the trees and realized this process caused them to produce more
fruit, since the roots of the clipped plants had less area to nourish. These
space savers really caught on and were much easier to harvest. The French
love variety and profusion, so growers developed espalier techniques and
were able to grow many varieties where before there had been room for only a
few. A single rootstock can be grafted to support up to three different
varieties, making it possible to accommodate many favorites in a very small
area. For centuries in
, land has been available only at a premium, so devising ways to make the
most of space has been important. As we in the
begin to look to conservation measures, we would do well to take a lesson
from the old country.
Growing in this two-dimensional way
is both practical and aesthetically
pleasing, since making all branches more open to sunlight along all parts of
the branch results in more flowering, fruiting, and enriched color. The
flavor is better, too; because photosynthesis happens in the leaves and
because such a large proportion of the trees’ leaves are exposed to the
sun to bathe in freely, the fruits get plenty of sugars.
A well-trained fruit tree bears earlier,
more heavily, and for a longer time because it is just like an efficient
athlete in training, concentrating energies where they are needed most –
in this case, in the production of fruit-bearing wood. Once the skeleton, or
“chassis,” of the tree is established, all the gardener’s efforts
focus on the development of vital, healthy fruiting wood.
espaliered fruit tree at Agecroft Hall in Richmond gives a strong
yet elegant structure to the English garden during every season.
Sap moves easily up a vertical branch,
but it stimulates more of the rapid vegetative growth and elongation of the
branch. Shoots that grow vertically – “suckers” off a main branch –
are routinely cut off even in conventional trees because they never produce
fruiting wood and just suck energy away from the fruit-bearing branches.
In espalier, as a branch is trained away
from vertical growth, the flow of sap is slowed. However, you must trick the
plant, since branches trained to the horizontal will stop growing entirely
unless you keep the growing tip bent upward while you attach the main part
of the branch to the horizontal support. Once trained, due to the braked
sap, huge amounts of fruit buds will form.
Another reason an espaliered plant is
healthier than a regular one is that air circulation is greatly increased,
diminishing the likelihood of diseases taking hold and thus giving the added
advantage of reducing the need for chemical sprays. Checking the plant often
to work with it also makes the gardener more likely to spot problems and be
able to deal with them promptly.
If you want to try espalier, dwarf
varieties of Malus (apple and crabapple) may be the easiest, although the
pear family (including the popular
pear) are good candidates. Keiffer pear is a good choice for a fruiting
variety since it has vigorous growth and high resistance to disease. Ficus
(fig) works well in colder climates.
, persimmon, cherry, pomegranate, and quince may all be trained, but red
currants are said to be less labor-intensive.
Although the practice has traditionally
been for fruit trees, some ornamental species can be adapted with fabulous
results. Evergreen pyracantha is one of the most malleable forms and can be
found pruned into many different styles: candelabra, palmette (fan-shaped),
cordon (resembling a menorah), or the common tiered (horizontal cordon).
Camellia sasanqua is an elegant, glossy evergreen that lends itself to
espalier with exuberant bloom. Star and saucer magnolias have been
successfully espaliered, and even Southern magnolia (the more contained
form, “Little Gem”) can be trained into a large living fence.
Witch hazel and Japanese red maple make
good deciduous models. Roses such as the rich, dark velvety “Don Juan”
and other woody vines make dramatic displays. A diamond pattern of
Confederate jasmine provides a gorgeous, dark-green geometric design when
not in bloom and magnificent fragrance when in flower. Aesthetically, these
plants become pieces of landscape sculpture with something to offer for
every season: spring flowering, fall ripening fruit, summer leafing into a
pleasing geometry whose branched design is perhaps most appreciated in
winter when little else grabs our attention.
The best location for growing a fruit
tree is on a south-facing wall with six hours of full sun per day. Eastern
exposures may also work, especially if they are in a location that does not
get harsh winter winds. Planting close to a wall, especially a brick wall,
creates a unique microclimate: brick absorbs heat during the day and
releases it at night, helping the trees bear earlier and extending the
growing season; but supports with wire can be placed anywhere in the garden.
You may purchase “whips” – small, single-stem, unbranched plants –
from the nursery, which will take about four years to train into the
three-tiered horizontal cordon. Also, you must be brave enough to make the
“unkindest cut of all,” the cut that takes the top off your new little
tree when you start training its branches sideways.
The major pruning is done in late winter
during the dormant period, but most of the espalier process is about bending
and shaping the young branches in summer, when they are most flexible. So if
you are a hands-on person or natural nurturer, this is a part of espalier
you will love. If you don’t want to wait for results, you can take the
easy route by buying pre-trained trees from a nursery that specializes in
Check online sources such as
Appleart.com or www.espaliertrees.com/rrf.html, the site for
plantsman Peter Thevenot’s 360-acre nursery, River Road Farms. This site
gives detailed step-by-step procedures for the basic three-tiered cordon.
©Paula Brown is a teacher and
free-lance writer from