Magazine article Sunset

Espalier

Magazine article Sunset

Espalier

Article excerpt

Espalier

History, science, and art join forces when you espalier fruit trees. This classic technique dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when master European gardeners --using the artistic and scientific principles of pruning--invented ways to grow productive fruit trees in confined areas.

But espaliers are especially useful today. They can provide an abundance of fruit in a small space--along a fence or a wall, in a side yard or a narrow planting bed. Even the smallest garden can easily accommodate several.

If well cared for, they look good all year, from spring bloom through harvest. (Deciduous kinds reveal attractive, geometric skeletons when leafless in winter.) They can also add a strong focal point to home gardens, serve as living fences that define or separate sections of the garden, or dress up a stark wall.

Although they require more attention during the growing season than unstructured trees do, the rewards are well worth the effort. Espaliered fruit trees begin fruiting at an early age, and pruning, pest control, and harvest are all within easy reach. Also, by planting figs or frost-tender fruit such as citrus against a warm, south-facing wall, you can grow them outside their normal climate range.

Formal or informal: how do you choose?

Formal espaliers are trained into precise geometric patterns; one example is the Asian pear on page 83. The less vigorous the tree, the easier it is to maintain such a rigid structure. Informal espaliers like the fig trees at left are trained along a single plane--as are formal ones--but their form is less structured. Vigorous trees adapt best to this style.

Semidwarf and dwarf apple and pear trees are easiest to train, so they're the best candidates for formal espaliers. Both develop long-lived fruiting spurs (short shoots that form flowers and bear fruit for up to 20 years); and their branches are flexible and can be bent easily. Even though growth is severely restricted by pruning, trees will fruit heavily.

Avoid tip-bearing apples such as "Granny Smith', "Jonathan', and "Rome Beauty'; it's much more difficult to keep these fruiting. Also, avoid apple trees on standard rootstocks. Trees on a semidwarf rootstock, such as M.M. 106, do well when trained along large walls and fences. For small areas, use dwarf rootstocks, such as M.M. 9 or Mark.

Like vigorous kinds of fruit trees, varieties that fruit on young wood--citrus, figs, persimmons, and pineapple guava--will do much better if you train them informally. Figs and persimmons grow best when trained into informal fans; to renew fruiting wood and keep plants in bounds, prune off much of the old wood on the scaffold branches during the dormant season. Prune pineapple guava in spring.

Citrus can also be trained into informal fans, or into a more formal design such as horizontal cordons. But to maintain fruit production, the foliage should be allowed to grow in thickly (see the espaliered lemon in Sunset's courtyard, shown on page 86); use dwarf citrus--"Bearss' lime, "Eureka' lemon, mandarins, and ornamental citrus (to learn more about ornamental citrus, see page 68 in the December 1987 Sunset).

As you gain experience with espaliers, you may want to experiment with more difficult subjects, such as apricots, cherries, or plums. Cherries and plums produce fruit on long-lived spurs, but they're difficult to control (their growth habit is very upright, and their limbs are less flexible than those of apples and pears).

Try training cherries and plums into more upright espalier shapes--candelabra or U-shaped. To increase the flexibility of a young limb when training it into the horizontal position (to start the bottom of the candelabra, for instance), grab it at its base, gently flex the limb back and forth a few times in the direction opposite the one in which you intend to bend it, and then slowly ease it down. …

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