Espalier is the process of training trees or shrubs, by pruning and trellising, to create a vertical, two-dimensional, formal pattern. The purpose of espalier is to artfully train a tree to grow in limited space, to provide pattern and texture on a solid wall, to grow fruit in a limited space and to create privacy in the garden.
It is possible to purchase plants that have been already been espaliered, however, your selection of plant choices will be limited and it’s not nearly as much fun as doing it yourself. Fortunately, it’s not as hard to do as it may sound!
To begin, choose a spot in full sun where you have garden space at the foot of a bare wall or fence. It is important to remember to leave about 6 inches of space between the wall or fence and the plant to allow sufficient room for roots to grow. A wire frame is often used in place of a trellis when choosing this type of plant training, though a trellis may be used when training a plant for privacy when no wall is available. Screw eyebolts into the side of a building at 1-foot intervals, horizontally and vertically. Tie wire between the bolts to create a grid. There are many styles and patterns, of espalier to choose from, some simple, some complicated. It may help to layout your design on graph paper first to solidify your plan and to visualize its complete form.
Select a tree that is young as its branches will be more flexible and more readily trainable. All branches must be pruned from the side that will be flush with the wall or trellis. Tie the main trunk to the wire grid with a twist tie, then prune away all branches that grow forward leaving only laterally spreading branches. Next, begin tying the lateral branches to the frame at approximately a 45-degree angle from the ground. You now have the beginnings of an espalier! This process will require annual maintenance. Branches chosen to be part of your original design should be retrained and retied yearly. Check the ties twice a year to make sure that they are not strangling the branches, and loosen them as necessary. Branches that are not needed to maintain your design should be removed.
Pruning Your Plant for the Best Espalier
Pruning and training will continue throughout the life of your chosen plant. Generally, most major pruning is done in late winter to early spring before new growth begins, but pruning at different times can have different advantages. Pruning during the dormant season or early spring, for example, will stimulate new growth that can help fill a pattern in more quickly. Pruning in mid-summer (June, July) tends to have a dwarfing effect, ideal to keep a more mature plant under control in a smaller space. Pruning should not be done in late summer, however, as this could stimulate new growth that will not have time to harden off before a heavy frost sets in.
An espalier design can take years to fill into a luxurious form, but the effort and meticulous nature of this type of plant training can be well worthwhile for a unique and eye-catching feature in your garden.