Would not the silhouette of this tree, trained and grown parallel to a wall, get your attention? Even out of leaf, it is striking. You are looking at an espalier- a tree trained to grow in only two dimensions. In the late 1600’s, Fr. Legendre, a monk living in Hanonville France was in charge of his monastery’s garden. His fruit trees were bedevilled by late frosts that killed the fruiting buds. Noticing that the fruit trees planted closest to the monastery walls sustained the least damage, he began planting his fruit trees as close to the walls as possible. As wall space was limited, he began shearing his trees, so as to provide room for all the varieties he wanted to grow. Amazingly, the drastically sheared trees produced heavier yields than unpruned trees in the field. His book, Palmette Legendre, was published shortly before his death in 1684. This book is the earliest known text regarding the science of growing espaliers. These trees, pruned flat, spare, and parallel to a wall, had fewer cultural problems, took up little space, and were beautiful to boot.
Espaliered fruit trees look like no naturally growing tree . Though no tree expert would advise this kind of planting, pruning and shaping, Father Legendre’s ideas practices enabled ample fruit for everyone living at his monastery. Sometimes the hand of man comes to good end in the environment. This very early spring picture shows an espaliered tree, grown in the candelabra shape. It would be beautiful, grown on a blank wall-never mind the fruit. Training trees to grow in two dimensions became a gardening art form-even for those who had no need to feed many from a very small plot of land.
I make a special effort to offer exceptional espaliered trees to my clients. My grower of choice is of French descent, and his espaliers take my breath away. I drive a day’s length to see and review his espaliers. He grows in the traditional way, and only has a few trees to offer for sale every year. He sells no trees that are not at least seven years old; his big trees are much older. He pots his trees, and then sinks the pots in the ground. Note that the trunk of this tree is positioned to the back of its pots-his trees are easy to plant close to a wall.
Their winter appearance is architectural. The American landscape is fundamentally based on big spaces; we have eight lane highways and driveways 22 feet wide. This makes this particular dose of French editing all the more refreshing. People who come to my store are invariably interested in their history and forms.
My grower trains some of his espaliers in a form not existing in the classical literature. This framed heart is entirely his invention; how I love this. It has a distinctly American feeling; he has taken his classical training, and gone beyond.
This informal heart espalier enchanted one of my clients. I call it the wild at heart espalier. As she had no room in the ground, we built her a box for her deck, insulated to slow the freeze, and delay the spring thaw; this apple tree is thriving. We heap up the compost after the ground freezes, and we uncover it in the spring; so far, so good.
Not all espaliers are fruit trees. The art of training espaliered trees has extended to many trees tolerant of this treatment. This Bradford pear makes a big statement as an espalier. Any lonely wall would be all the happier for this tree planted on it.
This series of trees is known as a Belgian Fence. You can see that individual trees were topped low to the ground as whips, encouraging branching in both directions. The branches of these trees are trained in a diamond pattern; what a beautiful living ornament for a long wall, or a free standing fence.
These shaggy Donald Wyman crabapple espaliers are in need of a trim to reveal their form. But no one could dispute how lustily they are growing. A wall, and an espalier make good companions. Espaliers-of course they are on my list of favorite plants.