(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 16, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
This technique originated in France and England in the 16th century, out of the practical need for growing fruit in such marginal climates as northern France and southern England. Traditionally it is used primarily on dwarf apple and/or pear trees, but other types of plants can be trained in this manner.
The Six Basic Espalier Styles
Cordon: Most traditional form of espalier. Grows horizontally for a distance, lending itself well as a garden-bed divider. Can be a single cordon, also known as "rope," or a multicordon, generally with three tiers of branches. The multicordon takes two to three years to reach definition. May take longer on the East Coast because of shorter growing seasons.
Palmetto Verrier: Vertical branching adds nice definition between trees planted against a wall or fence. Horizontally trained branches are gradually trained into upright positions. Design can take up to three years to reach definition.
Fan: Suitable for areas requiring vertical coverage; will best cover a square space. Style defines quickly; can have clear definition within one year. Branches angled at 45° can be raised or lowered for greatest fruit yield.
Informal: Tree is allowed to take on a more natural shape; requires simple pruning to keep on a two-dimensional plane. Somewhat easier to train-simply balance the tree's aesthetic symmetry as the branches begin to grow.
Belgian fence: Lattice effect offers one of the most formal looking styles. Requires three trees or more to create overlapping Vs and two modified Vs to create finished ends. Within one year, the beginning design of overlapping Vs is well outlined.
Candelabra: Also known as "Brooklyn Botanical." Several vertical branches stem off one horizontal base. Fairly easy to train and maintain.
BENEFITS OF ESPALIER.
First of all, espaliers save space. An espaliered fruit tree provides loads of fruit in a fraction of the volume of a natural tree.
Second, an espaliered tree bears earlier than a natural tree, bears much more heavily (in spite of the reduced number of branches), and bears for a longer time. A well-trained espalier often remains fruitful for over a hundred years. An espaliered tree is pruned and trained so that all of its energies are concentrated in the production of fruit-bearing wood. Once the skeleton or 'chassis' of the tree is established, all the gardener's efforts focus on the development of vital, healthy fruiting wood.
Third, an espaliered fruit tree is healthier than an unpruned, untrained tree. Increased air circulation throughout the tree in available by using this technique. Secondly, the frequent attentions of the gardener required to maintain the espalier mean that he or she spots problems early on and applies appropriate interventions more promptly, thus needing less spraying.
An espaliered fruit tree is much easier and faster to harvest. Likewise, any necessary treatments can be applied more quickly and easily, and with a lesser volume of spray than on a natural tree.
Finally, the interesting part, from an aesthetic point of view. An espaliered fruit tree becomes a piece of landscape sculpture. It is beautiful in all seasons of the year.
The art of espalier also allows you to solve vexing landscape problems in interesting ways. For instance, no prettier enhancement to bare house wall exists than to train an espaliered fruit tree against it. If that wall has windows, you can choose a form that artfully frames them. And best of all, horizontal space is not an issue, as the espalier will cling flat against the wall. At the same time, an espalier will not harm the wall of your house as will many climbing plants with holdfasts.
Some growers simply enjoy the aesthetic value of espaliered trees, with their traditional symmetrical branch forms resembling fans and candelabras. These forms are created by snipping off unwanted branches and training others to move down toward the desired position. These unique forms make exquisite garden focal points: during winter, the branching patterns are revealed; during the spring, apple blossoms in varying shades of white and pink decorate the tree; during the summer, there is a two- or three-week stage of dramatic showy blossoms. Also, because you can train them to grow against almost any supportive structure, they are wonderful "cover-ups" for unattractive walls, fencing, or compost bins.
Espaliered fruit trees can also be used as elegant screens and fences. Free-standing forms make incredibly beautiful vertical accents in any garden--living sculptures that provide not only a feast for the eyes, but for the tongue and tummy as well.
Along with pear trees, apple trees are the traditional espalier subject because their spurs live for years producing fruit. Espalier apple trees bear fruit at a young age and are versatile in nature, with their supple, easily trained new growth. However, you'll need to practice delayed gratification because most of these trees take approximately three years to mature and reach the desired design. For some growers, this is too large a drawback. But if you don't mind the wait, your patience and creativity will pay off in the long run, with bushels of yummy fruit and a very attractive unusual focal point in your landscape design.
THE TRADE-OFF: Most espaliered trees need approximately three years to attain the desired design and reach maturity. If you can stand the wait, you'll be rewarded with beautifully structured trees and bushels worth of fresh apples, pears and other fruits.
However, if you don't want to wait for your espalier tree to become mature enough for you to harvest fruit or you want the artistic design of the branches now, there is a solution. You can purchase or mail order espalier trees that have been trained and already have their basic shape. Depending on what the espalier nursery has in stock, almost any apple variety can be shipped during the dormant, bare-root season.
There are many extremely good step-by-step directions on how to learn this old technique available both on the web and at your local library. It is my understanding some areas there are classes given at some nurseries.
SUGGESTIONS FOR TYPES OF PLANTS THAT MAKE LOVELY ESPALIER SPECIMENS:
Vines, such as Ivy
While this is an certainly a high maintenance technique initially, it is certainly worth the effort if you want heavy-bearing fruit trees in a small area that last for many years.
CREDITS: Roses from public domain, the rock fig from palmbob and the fig from andycdn, both members of DG. Thanks for sharing your photos with us all!