Having a home garden or orchard can be rewarding, but it can also be a lot of work. Growers and gardeners are always on the hunt for tips and techniques to help make the process of growing a little easier and a lot more productive.
And one of those methods is that of espalier. Never heard of it? Read on and learn how to espalier apple trees!
What is Espalier?
Espalier is an ancient technique that dates all the way back to the Roman empire, although some research indicated that it is perhaps even older. The word “espalier” is a French word that comes from the Italian word spallier which means to lean against or to rest the shoulder against.
Espaliering is the process of training trees or shrubs to grow on a single, flat plane. The plant’s trunk and its limbs are then used to create shapes and patterns, usually against walls, fences, or a trellis.
Why Espalier Apple Trees?
But why espalier apple trees? What are the benefits of using such a technique?
Well, one of the main benefits of espaliered apple trees (and other fruit trees) is that it allows the grower to grow more in smaller spaces. If your home garden is on the small side and you want to maximize how much you can grow in your space, then apple tree espalier might be a technique to try.
For this reason, espalier was particularly popular in medieval times, as it allowed for plants to be grown inside castle courtyards and in other size-limited spaces.
Espaliering apple trees is also a great practice for maintaining control over your plants without compromising your harvests. It also adds an ornamental or decorative element to your garden or orchard.
This is one of the reasons this practice is so popular–you’ll get fruit in a small space while also creating a piece of living artwork!
Espalier Apple Tree Varieties
In case you were wondering, yes, there are some apple varieties that work better than others as espaliered apple trees. Here’s a short list of popular varieties to look for.
How to Espalier Apple Trees
Okay, so now that we’ve got you interested, let’s talk about the actual process to begin an apple tree espalier project in your garden or orchard. Let’s say that you are looking to start your own small apple tree orchard, and you want to give espalier a try. Here’s how you would begin the process of espaliering an apple tree:
Creating an Espalier
The first step in creating an apple tree espalier is determining what sort of support structure you’ll be using or need to construct to support the trees.
You can use an existing wall or fence, or you can construct a support frame or trellis. Regardless of what you use, having a support structure is essential to the espailer process. The support structures help train the tree to grow in a certain manner and support it until the tree matures and hardens.
There are many different shapes that you can create with your espalier, including cordon (horizontal branches); fan (branches that fan upward and also to the side); candelabra (very similar to a cordon but with a sharp angle upward to the branches); lattice (branches crossing each other); and Y shape (diagonal branches).
The most commonly used shape is that of the cordon.
To create a cordon apple tree espalier, you’ll need the following materials:
- A measuring tape or stick
- A writing utensil (pencil or chalk)
- An electric drill and 3/16 drill bit (If you’re working with a wall, you may need a masonry bit)
- 12 gauge wire
- Wire cutters
- Star pickets (or wooden posts or gardening canes–whatever you want to use to secure the wire in place)
- 6–8’ right angle brackets
The process of building a cordon against a wall and building a new support structure is very similar.
You need to run the wire along the wall or the structure and secure it using the star pickets and the brackets. The goal is to create three evenly spaced horizontal tiers to support the branches as they grow sideways.
The branches will naturally want to arch toward the sun, so you’ll need to make sure that the wire you choose is strong enough to keep them from doing so.
Planting & Training the Trees
Once you have created the support structure, the next step in apple tree espalier is to move forward with planting your apple trees.
First, you’ll need to dig holes about 4 inches away from the support structure and place the plants in the ground. Next, fill in the holes and secure the tree’s branches to the wire using nursery ties or tape.
When you secure the branches, however, leave the tips of the trees free–this allows them to continue growing. If your tree has no branches at the time of planting, you will need to wait till they grow in, then secure them to the wire.
Since the young tree is still soft and new, tying off the branches trains the tree to grow in a certain way—thus creating the pattern or design you’ve chosen.
Once the tree has matured, it will harden and continue growing in that same shape and will not need to be secured to the support structure.
While you’re training the trees, it’s important to stay on top of pruning in order to facilitate the training process and keep the trees growing the way you want them to.
Pruning: Now and Later
The key to quality espalier is pruning. As the design of your espaliered apple tree begins to take shape, you’ll need to remove shoots or suckers as they pop up, removing any of the new growth that might compromise your desired shape.
You’ll also need to watch for spurs that will appear. These are more stubby shoots that will begin popping up. You’ll want to keep some of these (a good rule of thumb is one for every six inches) and remove any remaining. In your pruning process, try to get the spurs down to two or three leaves–this is ultimately where your fruit will come from down the road.
After the initial year of espaliering an apple tree, you can create additional levels by training new branches on the various levels of wire. You can add a new level each year until your desired shape is complete.
You can typically expect your trees to bear fruit by year two or three. Pruning regularly will help ensure your harvest, and once the trees begin to bear fruit, you’ll want to make sure you thin the branches each summer.
While you may see fruit in year two, it will likely be a little longer before your apple tree espalier design is recognizable. To see the full artistic vision of your chosen shape, you’ll need to wait about four years. During that time, keeping up with your pruning will help maintain the growth. As your trees bear more fruit, make sure also to watch your support structure and make sure it stays strong in supporting new growth.
When you are first starting with espalier, watering is important to make sure the trees thrive. New fruit trees require substantial water in the initial weeks after planting, but you want to be careful not to flood them. If you can, water new trees slowly to allow ample time for the water to soak up into the roots.
Established trees don’t need nearly as much water, and how much largely depends on the soil type you have and your region’s climate. A general rule of thumb, however, is that most fruit trees need at least 2-3 inches of water every two weeks, give or take.
Watering helps ensure your trees stay healthy and will continue growing in your desired shape.
Are Other Fruit Trees Good for Espalier?
If you’re new to espaliering, you may wonder what type of fruit trees would be the best or at least the easiest to work with.
In general, pear and apple trees are good for beginners, but we recommend that new-to-espalier growers try apple trees first.
Apple tree stems take a little longer to harden than pear trees, which make them a little easier to work with when it comes to securing them to your support structure.
Peaches, pomegranates, cherries, and figs are also good for espaliering. And if you’re working with a relatively small space, make sure your chosen fruit tree comes in a dwarf or semi-dwarf variety.
Big Harvests, Small Space
Whether you’re new to apple tree espalier or a professional, we can all agree that this practice is definitely unique, interesting, and one worth trying in your own garden or orchard.
If you’re looking to grow apple trees (or any fruit tree for that matter!) and your goal is a big harvest, but you’re working with a relatively small space, then espaliering apple trees is for you!
There is a bit of a learning curve with this process, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll love the fruit from the harvests and the living artwork you’ve created!
For more information about growing and caring for fruit trees that you might be interested in espaliering, head over to our Fruit Trees page.