Espalier fruit trees are among the most time-consuming, but satisfying shapes you can create. They’re especially useful in smaller gardens, as they take advantage of minimal space. In this guide, I’ll teach you how to prune and train fruit trees into stunning espalier shapes. We’ll also touch upon subjects such as planting sites, soil requirements, choosing the right rootstock, and partner pollination.
You’ve probably seen espalier fruit trees depicted in Medieval or Tudor paintings, as they were very popular in those eras. This growing method has fallen out of favor in recent years, but provides both an attractive and productive tree form.
In simplest terms, the espalier shape is best described as a series of horizontal cordons on one plant. These are commonly seen trained against a wall or fence on a system of strong supporting wires.
Choosing a Suitable Site
Fruit trees like to be planted in the sunniest site possible. Good amounts of light and warmth are essential factors for fruit ripening and tree maturation. Suitable light and warmth also help to promote fruit bud development for the next year’s crop.
That said, most fruits will tolerate some shade, but this will affect their fruiting yields. Avoid windy and exposed sites, especially those in frost pockets. Strong winds not only damage your plants, they inhibit pollinating insect movement and cause fruits to drop prematurely.
Soft, warm temperate fruits such as peaches, nectarines, figs and grapes all require a full-sun site. These fruit wonderfully when trained against garden walls: those walls provide a sturdy growing frame, and the trees benefit from the residual heat.
With espalier fruit trees, it’s better to either erect a fence for limb training, or use an existing garden wall in a sheltered and sunny site. Your fruit trees will be happy trees wherever there’s sunlight for at least half of the day in summertime.
Most soils will grow fruits, providing the land is reasonably well-drained. Obviously, fruit trees are a long-term investment, sometimes lasting up to 50 years. As such, it’s essential that the soil is well-prepared to sustain fruiting plants in their infancy.
Double-dig your planting site and incorporate generous amounts of well-rotted farmyard manure, or alternative organic matter. This is highly recommended to give your fruit trees the best start in life. Young fruit trees need a minimum of around 2 feet/24 inches, of good, fertile soil for planting.
If your site is less than ideal and prone to the cold, select later-flowering fruit tree cultivars and those that are most frost-tolerant. By doing so, the site will have had enough time to warm through by the time flowering occurs later in the year.
Rootstocks: What You Need to Know
Your fruit trees’ mature hight is determined by the rootstock on which your chosen cultivar is grafted. Trees that are grafted on vigorous rootstocks will grow much larger than those grafted on dwarfing rootstocks.
In recent years, most fruit trees have been developed for small gardens and grafted on a non-vigorous rootstock. The exceptions to this rule are standard or semi-standard forms. When choosing your fruit trees, it’s imperative to check that its growth vigour and ultimate height are suitable for your space and purpose.
Bear in mind that most trees will need to be cross-pollinated before they’ll bear fruit. This stands for apples, cherries, pears, and plums, so you’ll need to buy more than one tree for compatible pollination.
Always buy your fruit trees from a reputable nursery where trees are well kept and look healthy. Additionally, ensure that the staff have the knowledge required to give advice on pollinating partners.
Pollination needs to take place for successful fruiting to occur. Successful fruiting will depend on choosing the right pollination partner for your chosen cultivar. It’s vital that your chosen cultivar and “partner” trees flower at similar times of the year.
Different apple varieties, for example, flower at different times for a period of around two to three weeks. Many flowering times overlap, which helps with pollination. Some cultivars are self-fertile, such as the “Braeburn” and “Falstaff”. These not only fertilize themselves, but also fertilize other trees.
Other cultivars, such as the commonly known “Bramley” apple, are sterile, or “triploid” trees. These are fertilized by a wide range of other apple varieties, but fertilize none in return. This is quite an in-depth subject, but I shall give a few examples of perfect partners below:
Apples and Their Perfect Pollinating Partners
Your Chosen Cultivar: Braeburn
Perfect Pollinating Partners include: Discovery, Granny Smith and James Grieve
Your Chosen Cultivar: Bramleys
Perfect Pollinating Partners include: Braeburn, Golden Delicious and Egremont Russett
Your Chosen Cultivar: Coxs Orange pippin
Perfect Pollinating Partners include: Gala, Granny Smith and Ellisons Orange
Pears and their Perfect Pollinating Partners
The well-known “Conference” pear tree is a self-fertile variety which doesn’t actually need another pollinator to fruit, but it will produce better crops when cross-pollinated with one of the following varieties.
Perfect Pollinating Partners include: Beth, Williams bon Chretien and Glou Morceau
Your Chosen Cultivar: Doyenne du Comice
Perfect Pollinating Partners include: Buerre Hardy, Invincible and Concorde
Plums and their Perfect Pollinating Partners
Certain plum tree cultivars are also self-fertile, such as the scrummy “Victoria” Plum and “Marjorie’s Seedling”. The same applies here as with the Conference pear: these don’t actually need another pollinator to fruit, but greater fruiting is improved with a partner.
Your Chosen Cultivar – Victoria Plum
Perfect Pollinating Partners include – Belle de Louvain, Haganta and Guinevere
Your Chosen Cultivar – Czar
Perfect Pollinating Partners include – Belle de Louvain, Coes Golden Drop and Victoria
Even if you’ve planted your trees with their pollinating partners in close proximity, there are times when your plants will fail to produce fruit. There are a few problems that can create this scenario, and most of them are caused by inclement weather conditions.
For fruit trees to produce blossoms and be pollinated successfully, they generally require a temperature of at least 12 degrees C/55 degrees F. If a cold snap occurs, it can kill off large numbers of pollinating insects. In this case, unfortunately there is little we can do about the situation.
In areas that are prone to being cooler, research fruit tree cultivars that are known to pollinate at lower temperatures, such as the Red Falstaff or Spartan apple trees. These both cope better with the cold than most varieties. Alternatively, choose a late-blossoming variety like the Braeburn apple to avoid such problems.
Now let’s take a look at how to plant and train your espalier trees.
Planting Your Fruit Trees
Four easy steps on how to plant your fruit trees:
- Firstly, prepare your ground by digging a large hole, wide enough to take the roots when fully spread out. Drive in a stake and heap a little of the well-tended soil in the middle to create a shallow mound.
- Then take your tree and trim off any broken or long tap roots with a sharp pair of snips. Soak your tree in water for about an hour.
- Next, set the soaked tree on the mound of soil and spread out the root system. The graft point should be around 10 cm/4 inches, above the soil level. Replace the soil and heel it in.
- Finally, tie your tree to the stake and mulch the base with organic matter/compost
Wiring Systems for Espalier Training
A strong support system is required, as a tree will get really heavy as it matures and fruits. Ensure that you choose adequate, strong wires to support their growing forms.
Place your supporting wires at intervals between 12 inches and 16 inches apart, running horizontally on your wall or fence structure. Each of these wires will support a tier of your tree’s horizontal fruiting arms.
Over years and with patience, espalier trees can be created with many tiers, all of them supporting the fruits of your labour. This will create a formal and professional-looking focal point in your garden.
Pruning and Training New Espalier Fruit Trees
Steps for Pruning Espalier Trees in the First Year
- Plant a one-year-old unbranched tree in autumn. Cut back the stem to three good upper buds and a short stem, somewhere around 15 inches/40 cm from the ground.
- As the tree grows, (from summer to early autumn), train the shoots from the top bud vertically and those from the lower two buds at an angle of 45 degrees. Tie these to canes, fixed on the horizontal wires.
- At the end of the growing season, (in late autumn), untie and lower the two side branches, carefully re-tying them to the first tier of wire supports. At the same time, cut back the central leader shoot to within 18 inches/45 cm, of the lower arms. Leave three good buds to form the new central leader and two new horizontal arms, which will grow into the next tier.
- Cut back any surplus lateral shoots on the main stem to three buds and prune back the horizontal leaders by one third.
Steps for Pruning in the Second and Subsequent Years
- In late summer, train the second tier of branches in the same way. Train the top shoot vertically and those from the lower buds at an angle of 45 degrees to the main stem. Again, tie these to canes fixed to the wire supports.
- At the same time, cut back competing stems from the main stem to three leaves. Then cut back lateral growth from the horizontal arms to just above the third leaf on the basal cluster.
- Once growth has ceased for this year, around later autumn, cut back the central leader to within 18 inches/45 cm, of the lower arm. This should leave three good buds to form the new central leader and two new horizontal arms.
- Cut back all surplus laterals on the main stem to three buds and prune back all horizontal leaders by one third.
- Repeat this process each year in late autumn until you have the required number of tiers and all are complete.
Steps for the Mature Tree
- Once the tree has its required number of tiers and has filled its allotted space, it is considered mature. From now on, cut back any new terminal growths on both the vertical and horizontal arms to their main arms during late spring. This will stop the tree from growing any larger.
- Prune any subsequent growths in summer as if they were laterals, continuing to prune the laterals back to three leaves, as before.
Now that you have all this knowledge on the subject, why not try growing espalier fruit trees for yourself?
I’ve recently revamped my vegetable garden, making it around a third larger, and subsequently incorporated a small collection of fruit trees. These are all being trained as espalier trees! I shall keep you informed as to their progress and wish you luck with your own pruning.