Our foray into the world of espaliering started about 20 years ago when we realised that the plot we had earmarked and fenced off for our future orchard wouldn’t even go close to housing all the varieties of heritage apples that we found enticing. Living in Tasmania meant that growing apples was a given, and every year a tempting list of available trees would arrive from Woodbridge Fruit Trees, south of Hobart, and we would bemoan the fact that, theoretically, our orchard was full.
What had seemed like a huge plot – with plenty of space for our initial selection to mature and fruit – now seemed miniscule and restrictive. How could we possibly resist an apple with the name of Peasgood’s Nonsuch? Or an apple that was reputedly the inspiration for naming Apple Mac laptops? And where on earth could we find room for the wonderful cooking apple Cat’s Head? Any ordinary person would have been satisfied with about 15 varieties, but when faced with the possibility of never slicing a home grown Belle de Boskoop for an apple-pie, another solution had to be found.
The obvious answer (other than my suggestion of ‘squeezing them in’) was to utilise fences, walls and buildings as supports for espaliering our newest acquisitions. Espaliering simply means growing a tree flat against a support, and this system is steeped in tradition. The trees can even be trained to be self-supporting, thus creating a very beautiful and productive ‘living fence’. The technique was very appealing to me an on aesthetic basis alone, and to Peter on the basis that he would need to be constantly pruning them and his Scandinavian orderly tendencies would be satisfied. It seemed the obvious solution and we set about finding sites within our ever-expanding garden to install suitable supports. These consisted of horizontal wires spaced 40cm apart, in a spot where warm sun hit for a good part of the day, typically facing north or west.
In all honesty, I found the whole process initially very dull. The best specimens for espaliering are year old ‘whips’ or small, single stemmed trees. As if it weren’t bad enough that they started life looking like a stick with a few roots on the bottom, Peter then proceeded to cut them back within what seemed like an inch of their lives. The result was a bare wall festooned with wire with a twig planted virtually out of sight at the base. Even the optimistic twisty-ties on the wires ready for the expected spring growth didn’t fill me with joy. A pretty clematis would’ve done the job in a year.
Now, many years later, I begrudgingly offer my acknowledgement that they were worth the wait. In fact, even within a few years of planting we had very handsomely clothed fences and buildings, and now the effect is very lovely. In spring, the blossom is beautifully displayed on horizontal branches (and protected easily from frost), and the fruit that follows can be easily picked if one can bear to do so. Even in winter the trees provide an almost sculptural effect, and in fact one espalier which we ended up removing continues its life as a very striking display in our little nursery garden shop.
Not all fruit trees are suitable to espalier. Apples, crabapples and pears are the best, with only a few exceptions being those referred to as tip-bearers – a rarity in the apple world anyhow. Stone fruit are a little too vigorous and are better suited to ‘fan-training’ which is similar but the training is slightly less restrictive, accommodating as many limbs as possible in the allotted space. The best choice for espaliering is a dwarf-rootstock, young, single stemmed specimen, and as the initial prune is very hard – to the first wire 50cm above the ground – why pay for stems which you’ll only have to remove anyhow?
Plenty of light is a must, or you’ll spend years training a tree that will fruit poorly. Lack of a suitable support is no excuse – have a look at my photo of our vegetable garden where we have created a living fence of ‘Cats’ Head’ apples – these are about 15 years old now, but have been looking marvellous for quite some time. A simple post and wire fence is all that initially held them up, now they are entirely self-supporting. A couple of years ago, Peter decided to train the final tier up and over the archway – it looks great, you just have to make sure you aren’t standing underneath when the apples are ripe or you may end up with a sore head.
I’ve only really touched on the technique of espaliering. Growing fruit like this is obviously going against the trees natural growth habit and, as such, requires ongoing pruning and training. Just remember to create one tier annually and to summer prune extension growth as it emerges from your tied-in horizontal arms during the growing season to a couple of buds beyond the basal cluster of leaves (maybe 3-4 times). A lot of good, detailed advice is available on the internet, but my intention was simply to encourage you to think outside the square regarding either growing apples or clothing a fence or wall.
Is it difficult and time-consuming? I don’t think so, but then it is my husband who actually does it all, so I would say that wouldn’t I?