Garden Muse

Plane Elegance

Story and Photos by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist


Any 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 Garden.

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 garden at Mount Vernon . 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 Hanonville , France , 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 Europe , land has been available only at a premium, so devising ways to make the most of space has been important. As we in the U.S. 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. 

This 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 Bradford 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. Plum , 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 espalier.

Check online sources such as or, the site for Tennessee 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 Richmond VA.


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