Espalier Fruit Trees: A How-to Guide

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I remember the first time I saw one in a magazine — a beautiful, flowering crabapple trained to grow along a wall in a stunning candelabra pattern. Questions immediately filled my mind. How was that possible? Could it be done with any tree? And of course, can I do it myself?

Come to find out, that beautiful display is known as an espalier, an ancient agricultural practice of training the woody growth of fruit-bearing plants to grow flat against a wall or free-standing trellis. So instead of the mature plant having the traditional round growth we are accustomed to, it is very narrow instead, taking up much less space.

Pears can make a great candidate to create this structure that yields good harvests

Advantages

When you first think about it, it probably seems ridiculous to plant a tree and then prune it heavily, so you only grow a “slice” of the canopy. However, while the typical approach is to let it grow naturally into a large round shape, there are some great benefits to training a tree to grow in a modified, espaliered manner. 

  • Very efficient production, more fruit is produced than in the same space using traditional practices.
  • Fruit is at eye level, so it’s easier to harvest than conventional growing methods. You may not even need a ladder.
  • Growing in a single plant takes up less space, allowing people to grow fruit in small yards.
  • Less branch breakage leads to increased longevity.
  • Increased airflow through the canopy reduces problems with diseases and pests.
  • Creates a warmer microclimate when grown against a wall, allowing gardeners to plant specimens not typically suited for their growing zone. The wall shelters from harsh weather, and during the day, it absorbs and reflects heat, increasing the ambient temperature slightly.
  • Fruit ripens better and more evenly since the sunlight penetrates through the canopy more efficiently.
When pruned correctly, this will create the structure that is not only beautiful but functional.

Disadvantages

On the flip side, though, there are some disadvantages to choosing this growing method over the more traditional practice. If there weren’t any disadvantages, all trees would be grown this way. The downsides don’t keep everyone from trying their hand at espaliering, but it’s essential to understand the drawbacks before taking on this adventure.

  • Trellis installation is time-consuming and adds extra expense.
  • Needs more careful pruning than traditionally grown trees, including extensive knowledge of what you’re doing.
  • Fruit may see more sunburn because of the narrow canopy and limited shading.
  • Challenging to train fast-growing specimens.

Good Fruit Trees to Espalier

Many fruit trees work well with apple, crabapple, and pear, the most common gardener choices. These types are primarily used because of the popularity of the fruit. They are also common since their juvenile branches are pliable, making them easy to train, and their fruiting spurs bear fruit for many, many years.

An example of the 90 degrees that will form between trunk and branches.

The following are a few of the most popular apple, crabapple, and pear cultivars used.

Apple (Malus cvs.):

  • ‘Arkansas Black’
  • ‘Empire’
  • ‘Freedom’
  • ‘Golden Delicious’
  • ‘Liberty’
  • ‘Red Delicious’

Ornamental crabapple (Malus cvs.):

  • ‘Golden Raindrops’
  • ‘Prairiefire’
  • ‘White Cascade’

Pear (Pyrus cvs.):

  • ‘Bartlett’
  • ‘Harrow’s Delight’
  • ‘Kieffer’
  • ‘Magnus’
  • ‘Red Sensation Bartlett’

Besides these three types, some of the other popular fruiting specimens to espalier are apricot, cherry, peach, nectarine, plum, orange, lemon, tangerine, pomegranate, and fig.

Basics of Espalier

All trees have what is known as a leader, which is the main stem or growing point. When the leader is removed, shoots grow from buds on the sides of the stem, below the pruning cut. The best side shoots are guided to create the branches on your espalier tree. The uppermost shoot becomes the new leader.

The four most common forms are horizontal cordon, candelabra, Belgian lattice, and fan.

  • Horizontal cordon is the most common shape. A central trunk is grown upwards with typically 3-tiers of lateral branches extending outward horizontally.
  • In a candelabra, horizontal branches come off the central trunk and grow horizontally. Vertical branches are trained to grow upward off of the horizontal branches at regular intervals.
  • Belgian lattice designs are also called Belgian fence. Gardeners weave together numerous v-shaped espaliers to create a lattice.
  • With a fan structure, branches angle out of the central trunk at 45° to create the shape.
Here is an espalier tree that is created in a fanned shape.

15 Steps to Train Your Tree

Before you start training, keep in mind this process takes a great deal of time and dedication, especially the first few years. Growing like this isn’t any less work than planting a tree in the ground and letting it grow naturally. You’ll constantly be attaching growth to the supports and pruning to get your desired shape the first couple of years.

There are three essential components to training: building the support structure, planting, and the actual act of training. It’s easiest to start this process using a bare-root specimen as early in the spring as possible.

The following steps are for an apple or pear tree since they are most commonly planted. Plan on dedicating an entire growing season to create a single-tier in the structure. Once you have the training completed, allow for fruit production.

Training a plant takes time and proper shaping.

Year 1

  1. Using materials such as rubber bands designed for grafting, stretchy strips of cotton rags, or plant ties, attach the leader to the central vertical wire or support.
  2. Make a heading cut about 2-inches below the bottommost horizontal supports, ensuring you leave at least three buds below this cut.
  3. When the tree breaks dormancy and begins actively growing, attach the two healthiest shoots to that bottom tier using the same material as in the first step.
  4. Trim the leader to 4 to 6-inches above those two healthy shoots to force horizontal growth.
  5. Prune the stubbier spurs off of the lateral branches, leaving one approximately every 6 inches. Keep three leaves on each spur.
  6. Trim horizontal shoots, so they are 4 to 6-inches.
  7. Regularly trim the leader back until the branches are about ¾’s of the length of the horizontal supports.
  8. Regularly remove water sprouts and suckers that grow upwards from the lateral branches.
  9. Remove any horizontal growth on the leader besides the branches you are training.

Year 2

  1. As active growth begins, allow the leader to grow to the second tier or junction.
  2. Follow the same steps as above, choose the two healthiest branches to construct the second tier.
  3. Regularly prune the leader back and remove unwanted growth along the lateral branches, including extra spurs.
An example of a sapling that is still in the process of growing

Year 3

  1. Repeat the above steps to create the third tier.
  2. Remove any fruit that develops, encouraging woody growth instead.
  3. Once the tree reaches the desired size, switch to maintenance pruning. Keep the horizontal branches at the proper length and trim offshoots to keep a separation between the tiers.

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About the author: Carley Miller is a horticultural expert at TheGreenPinky. She previously owned a landscaping business for 25 years and worked at a local garden center for 10 years.

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