Espaliering - Fruit Trees For Small Areas
By Colin D Price
Do you have a small backyard and wish you could indulge in that great tasting fruit straight from the tree, not having to suffer commercially under ripe, tasteless fruit?
Espaliering can help you do this by creating a tree in a two-dimensional plane.
Don't let a small garden deter you from realizing your dream of growing fresh fruit from your own tree. This technique of growing trees has been popular in Europe since the Middle Ages and may even have been used in ancient Egypt. Visitors traveling through many European countries have very often thought they were looking at grape vines, which were in fact apple or pear trees or almost any other type of fruit tree you could mention.
Espaliering (es-pal-yer-ing) allows you to produce fruit trees against a wall or fence without interfering with open space; you can also use trellising, even turn your fruit trees into a fruit-bearing hedge. You can successfully grow several fruit trees in a very limited space using this method yet you will find that the fruit is barely compromised.
Visit your local garden and center research what fruit is OK with your local climatic conditions. Some varieties of apple, for example Granny Smith, Jonathan, and Rome Beauty are tip bearing fruit and should be avoided as it's much more difficult to keep these fruiting. Also, avoid fruit trees on standard rootstocks.
It is preferable to start your initiation into this form of producing fruit by using dwarf rootstock. Apples and pears are the best trees to start with as they both bear fruit for about twenty years (that's a great investment). Most importantly, their branches are flexible which allows you to bend and shape them.
The ground preparation and aftercare of the espalier is the same as for the free standing tree to maintain its growth and health. The pruning and shaping of this type of tree are no more time consuming than the standard type of tree. As a matter of fact, because you can reach and see what you're doing, pruning and harvesting are a lot easier.
If you are going to train your trees against a fence or wall set the plants about 8 inches from the wall to encourage air circulation, but first you need to create support for the trees to be trained on. When you are starting out the simplest method of espaliering is the horizontal method but as you become more proficient, or if the bug gets to you, you can try others such as Palmette, cordon, verrier, Belgian fence or fan.
What you are trying to do is train your fruit trees to grow horizontally like the way grape vines are grown on wood, wire or metal. To grow against a wall or fence use eye screws securely set in horizontal lines. The first horizontal wire should be 15 inches above ground level, then space the others 14-18 inches apart to a height of about 6 feet, or whatever height you're comfortable with, and thread these with 14 gauge galvanized wire.
Alternatively, if you want a free standing fruit hedge, build a wooden frame or stretch 14 gauge wire fixed between 4x4 posts about 15 foot apart, with the wires running horizontally 14- 18 inches apart. You can make the structure to suit your own specifications.
You are now ready to collect and plant your fruit trees, the ideal being a one year old which has been grafted onto dwarf stock; these are referred to as "whips" as they have no branches at this early stage. Choose wintertime to start off your fruit trees when the plant is dormant.
Plant the trees about 15 feet apart and about 8 inches from the wall, and then you need find a bud about 18 inches from ground level and cut off the wood above it.
Come spring time allow 3 buds only to develop, the top one is left to establish itself vertically as the main trunk, choose a pair of buds opposite each other to form the bottom limbs, and as they develop, train the shoots by gently bending the young shoots to grow horizontally along the bottom wire using ties to hold them to the desired shape. Tie the branches into place as soon as possible as it is much easier to work with supple shoots than older woodier branches.
Follow this example annually till you've reached the height you want and then prune off the trunk flush with the top tier of side branches. Now the tree is established, keep the desired shape and make sure forward or backward shoots are removed or any branches that do not fit into the pattern.
A typical espalier will be 6-8ft tall with 3-4 sets of horizontal branches and it will usually take between 5-7 years to create this structure and start harvesting fruit.
As you become accomplished in the art of espaliering, you might want to add to your fruit collection. Apricots, Plums, Cherry trees all respond well to this type of pruning; but as their branches are not so flexible they are usually trained into different patterns.