clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Grow Espaliered Trees for a Slim Fit

Trained against a wall or trimmed into a living fence, espaliered trees and shrubs are an elegant small-space solution for any yard

Plant Arms Outreached

Photo by Lynn Keddie/GAP Photos

It might seem strange to back a tree up against a wall, smooth it flat, and persuade its branches to spread sideways. But the art of espalier—growing trees or shrubs in two dimensions—is a time-honored fix for the space-challenged garden.

Do you dream of apples on a pint-size lot? Yearn to camouflage your garage wall or draw a line between your outdoor living and dining spots? Espalier (pronounced ess-PAL-yer and derived from an Italian term for support) lets you tuck fruit where it otherwise wouldn't fit, swap an eyesore for a flower-bedecked focal point, or divide large areas into smaller ones with graceful, lacy screens. The practice dates back to medieval times, when it allowed the cloistered residents of warring cities to feed themselves without venturing beyond the safety of their walled compounds. In America, it arrived with the colonial era: George Washington, for example, espaliered pears and apples at his Mt. Vernon home.

Shown: This tree's pink-blossom-covered limbs are pruned to grow horizontally, against a stone wall. With apple and pear trees, a masonry backing helps retain heat, encouraging fruit to ripen faster.

Extra Growth Boost

Photo by Mark Turner

Formally patterned or spreading freely, espalier still often relies on walls, making use of their reflected heat to boost the yield of fruit trees and speed the ripening of the harvest, especially in climate zones that are borderline for growing fruit. But an espalier also may itself create a wall or a living fence, with the help of stout poles strung at measured intervals with wires. One common pattern, the horizontal cordon, features evenly spaced branches spreading in lines from a central trunk. The palmette verger resembles a candelabra, and the Belgian fence, a leafy, crosshatched lattice.

Shown: Planted in multiples and supported by rows of wire anchored to widely spaced poles, pear- and apple-tree cordon espaliers can serve as a living fence that also yields an orchard-like harvest.

Small-Space Support

Photo by Dale Horchner

The form, and even the plant, you choose depends on your objectives, your garden's site conditions, and your level of patience for the pruning and training that an espalier requires. Dwarf pear and apple trees, which work well for formal shapes, need at least 6 hours of sun a day and a careful hand to avoid lopping off the thickened growths, called spurs, from which fruit develops. Certain ornamentals with flexible branches—flowering camellias and pyracantha, to name two—not only may thrive in shadier spots but also lend themselves to looser, free-form designs more forgiving of mistakes. At its most basic, an espalier may consist of vines, such as ivy or wisteria, that are tied up and coaxed to grow in particular patterns or directions.

Shown: This tree is trained into a fan shape.

Trees Ripe for Training

Photo by Mark Turner

While a tree presents a somewhat greater challenge, you can take a shortcut by purchasing espalier starts at a nursery. Already shaped and trained on trellising, these can be planted in a chosen spot and their forms simply extended and maintained as they develop.

Shown: A pear tree trained horizontally, in a cordon espalier, places fruit where it's easy to pick.

Maintaining The Pattern

Photo by Leigh Clapp/GAP Photos

It isn't hard, though, to start your own espalier. The principle is simple. Plants grow from a central stem, known as a leader. If you snip the leader, shoots emerge from buds on the stem's sides, below the snip, and from the top. The best two side shoots you choose will be the ones you guide to create the boughs of your stylized tree by attaching them to wall hooks or wires; the topmost shoot becomes the new leader and, eventually, the trunk. As the pattern emerges, maintenance is merely a matter of pruning away growth that detracts from your desired shape and keeping the plant low enough for easy tending.

Shown: Camellia branches create a leafy crisscross design. Pyracantha, jasmine, and flowering quince are other good choices for this type of espalier.

Plant Pattern Play

Photo by Jerry Pavia

Whatever your goals, shop at a quality local nursery for plants suited to your climate. If you want apples in Southern California, for instance, you should choose varieties that have lower chilling requirements than varieties suited for northern New York. For fruiting trees, look for robust, mostly unbranched 1-gallon plants called whips. For ornamentals, the main criteria, besides a malleable, easy-to-train habit, are seasonal interest (flowers, berries, foliage color) and compatibility with your chosen planting location. Suitable picks include forsythia, magnolia, flowering quince, and photinia.

Shown: The candelabra, or palmette verger, is one of several traditional forms of espalier.

Choosing The Espalier Setup

Photo by Gay Bumgarner/Alamy

Before planting, make a scale drawing of your design on paper so that you can space trees properly and refer back to your plan at pruning time. A sketch will also help you decide how to realize your design—with a wood- lattice frame or a grid of wires for support, perhaps—which will dictate the construction materials you need. If you're working with a wall and hope to capture extra warmth for fruit, pick one that faces south or east.

Shown: On a backyard patio, a planter box with a trellis is an accessible setup for training an espaliered tree. Simply tie the plant's branches directly to the wood slats as they grow and spread, using jute twine or some other soft, flexible type of plant tie.

Piece of Garden Art

Photo by John Granen

Once your initial guiding lines are in place, dig holes so that the trunk will be about 6 inches from your wall to allow the plants air circulation, and prep the soil as you would normally, adding organic compost and setting plants at the same depth they occupied in their containers. Clip the tops to about 18 inches, and as new growth appears, preserve the best side shoots and the chosen leader and snip the rest. When branches are about a foot long, tie them loosely to wires or eyebolts using twine or another material that won't dig into soft stem tissue. Prune annually, referring to your sketch for shaping, in late winter or early spring, before active growing starts; continue to tie out branches as they develop, loosening old ties so that they don't girdle the branches. Generally, it takes three to four years of pruning to complete the shape of an espalier and, from then on, selective clipping to keep it crisp.

Your reward for this careful collaboration with nature? A lasting piece of garden art, one that's brightened with flowers, frilled with foliage, or laden each year with fruit that's never out of reach.

Shown: Rosy red apples can embellish a simple privacy fence as long as there are anchors on which to tether the branches.

How to Attach Supports to a Masonry Wall

Illustration by Jason Schneider

While espalier shoots can be tied directly to wood lattice, creating a support system on a brick, block, or stone wall requires a little work up front. First, use chalk to sketch the pattern you want for the espaliered tree or shrub directly onto the masonry surface. This will help you figure out where to place the supports. Then, using a masonry bit, drill holes on the pattern lines every 18 inches or so. These are for 2-inch expansion shields, which will anchor eyebolts into the masonry. Clean out the holes, insert the shields, and screw in eyebolts that are long enough to create a 4- to 6-inch air space between the eyes and the masonry. Finally, secure 12- or 14-gauge wire between the eyebolts for tethering the espalier's branches.