The 2014 Espaliers

fan-pear-espalier-in-bloom.jpgAs long as I am on the topic of pruning woody plants, I would like to devote a little time to a discussion of espaliered trees.  An espalier is any tree which has been trained to grow in two dimensions. Espaliers can have great height, and great width, but with next to no depth.  They are pruned flat.  This training can take a long time.  They are great trees for very shallow places.

4-cordon-crabapple-espalier.jpgThe history of growing espaliers dates back centuries, to a certain French monk, Fr. Lergendre, who was entrusted with the important job of providing food for his monastery. In those days, providing food meant growing it. Some of his discoveries were made out of sheer need.  He wanted to grow lots of fruit trees, as he had lots of people to feed.  The trees planted closest to the monastery walls fruited more heavily and more reliably, as the flowers were protected from late frosts by the heat generated from the walls.  As his space was small, and his need great, he moved them closer and closer to the walls. And closer and closer together.  There were many varieties he wished to grow.  Eventually he cut the back branches off of the trees all together.  Amazingly, the trees he eventually trained to grow flat against the walls produced more fruit than trees cultivated in the open. His work over a lifetime was detailed in a book he wrote, “Palmette Legendre”, published in 1684.    The art of training fruit trees to grow against a wall in formally pruned shapes has persisted to this day.

candelabra-Golden-Delicious-apple-espalier.jpgHaving worked for Al Goldner in the 80’s, I inherited his love of espaliers.  He actually grew them on his farm in Howell.  Many a time I have gone to look at an old existing landscape with a mature espalier, and known it was his design.  We buy them from a number of different growers, in different shapes and sizes.

candelabra-style-redbud-espalier.jpgThis redbud was an experimental espalier subject for one grower.  It will have flowers on the main trunk this year. Almost any tree can be grown into an espalier, provided that the training and tying begins at an early age.  A framework of bamboo or wire must be in place, so each branch grows the desired length and in the desired location.  The process of making a branch turn from the horizontal to the vertical takes a lot of time, and must be started when the branch is young and flexible.

pear-espalier.jpgBranches on a fruiting pear tree harden off at a fairly early age.  The decisions as to which shape and direction to take has to be done early on.

pear-espaliered-arbors.jpgWe have a collection of 7 old fruiting pear arbors.  The eighth pair has already found a home.  They are outrageously beautiful.  We do construct a steel hoop armature for every arbor, so the vertical branches can be tied in place.  These espaliers have sufficient age and strength that they will not need that armature for long.  This is plant material that can make an entire garden.  Like every other plant, any gardener can grow a tree arbor, provided they have some time and patience.

espaliered-apple-trees.jpgWe also have a collection of 40 espalier apple trees of more modest size and dimension, and a small collection of espaliered grapes.  If you have an interest in growing, training and pruning, an espalier might be a perfect addition to your garden.  Interested further?  I have written several essays about espaliers.  If you type the word espalier into the search line of this blog, you’ll find them.



The 2012 Espaliers



espalier apple trees

What would spring be without some fabulous plants on order?  The garden shop is a garden shop-not a full service nursery.  We have neither the space nor the inclination for that.  But I do like to carry specialty landscape plants, plants of distinction, and great plants for containers.  My love for espaliers dates back to the mid 80’s.  If you shopped with or had a landscape designed and planted by Al Goldner, chances are an espalier was part of that relationship.  He grew these specially trained and pruned fruit trees on his farm in Howell-it was next to impossible to find them available for sale, save for Henry Leuthart’s place.  Billy drove these to us himself-typical.  The care he gives his trees is a full time and then some job.


espaliered pears

I buy them every year from a number of places, but this grower is my favorite.  He was formally trained in the propagation of fruit trees trained to grow in but two dimensions, as it has been done in France for centuries.  He sells no trees before their time.  The trunk sizes are substantial, and the primary arms are set and properly grown into their intended shape.  You can see in this picture that each tree is planted at the side of the pot-not in the middle.  This makes easy work of planting the tree close to a supporting wall.  This classical shape is know as a goblet-that should be clear.  This tree is older and perfectly grown.  The planting and bolting to a wall will be easy.

goblet form espalier

This old goblet espalier at one time had a supporting framework to hold its arms in place, but now is old enough and sturdy enough to stand alone.  Planted at the UBC Botanic garden, this tree is a living fence of beautiful design and form.  The history of espaliers is firmly rooted in a French agricultural tradition.  Fruit trees trained in two dimensions took up very little room in the garden; severely pruned trees produced huge yields of fruit.  Though most of my fruit comes from the grocery store, I find these pruned trees enchantingly beautiful.

Belgian fence

We unloaded 10 espaliers, all part of a free standing fence which will run 60 feet.  At a young age, a single stem crabapple whip was summarily topped.  A pair of shoots emerging at just the right angle on either side of that wound would be trained to grow out, producing the bottom half of a very large vertical diamond shape.  This method of growing and pruning multiple trees to create a whole is known as a Belgian fence.

Belgian fence

Each tree will be planted exactly 6 feet from its neighbor.  You can get the idea of those large vertical diamonds that will be created by this arrangement of trees in this picture.  I have seen Belgian fence done on a smaller scale.  The smaller the scale, the more difficult it is to keep the diamond shapes clean and crisp.  This fence will bloom with white flowers in May, and produce gold fruit in the fall.  The form will be so striking in winter.  Pruning is somewhat a matter of personal preference.  Some gardeners would like their primary branches small and delicate-they prune shoots off the main trunk hard.  Another gardener might permit small branches off the main trunks to grow such that the diamond shapes are thick and substantial.  Is this discussion not so clear? 

 Belgian fence espalier style


This picture makes the idea easier to see. This Belgian fence has smaller diamond shapes.  This look is created by planting the individual trees closer together.  I cannot really explain why the idea of having 10 trees that when planted together will form a wall with a continuous and geometric pattern appeals to me so much, but suffice it to say it took me all of 30 seconds to speak for these 10 trees.   

espaliered pear trees

Four  quadruple cordon espaliers were delivered-a pair of apples, and a pair of pears.  Cordon refers to the main arms of the espaliers being trained in the horizontal dimension.  The vertical distance between each arm is equidistant.  This form is common in the pruning of grapes, as well as fruit trees.  Branches growing in the horizontal dimension bear heavily.  This applies to grapes, apples, pears-and roses.  A long cane of a climbing rose attached in the horizontal dimension will bloom to beat the band. 


This drawing from Southern Living illustrates the cordon shape.  Of course few real trees have long arms that are as obligingly horizontal as this drawing would suggest-but this illustrates the ideal.  Branches and fruiting spurs off the main arms are kept closely clipped.  There is work to growing an espalier-but it is easy and satisfying work.  An espalier is a specialty landscape plant.  It is entirely friendly in even a small garden.  These trees are grafted onto dwarf rootstock.  They produce fruit.  The few hours spent pruning them feels good.

fan shape espalier

An espalier trained as a fan has arms that radiate in every direction from the central truck.  Those arms can be grown long on a big wall, or kept short in a confined space.  The bamboo stakes you see attached to this tree-travel stakes.  Every branch of every tree was firmly secured with bamboo stakes, to prevent any damage during shipping.  Though these trees are fairly old, they still rely on a physical support system to keep their shape intact.  Very long branches growing at wide angles are subject to damage, if they are not properly supported.


We have installed horizontal wires and bolts on some of the walls at the shop so we can display our espaliers.  The 3 bamboo stakes from the shipping phase have been left on, and will not be removed until the tree has been planted, and installed.  The process of giving an espalier a home involves bolts and ties into the supporting wall, or fence posts and wires for a free standing espalier. 

espalier forms

There is no classical precedent for this espalier shape.  It is entirely the invention of our grower.  A lively living sculpture such as this makes me want to grow espaliers from scratch.  Ours are old and established trees, but yes, they can be grown by any gardener from a single whip available from any number of fruit tree sources in the spring.  I was 35 when I saw my first espalier at Al Goldner’s farm-I still remember that day. It feels good,  carrying on, making these very special trees available years later.  This tree I call the wild at heart espalier. 

heart shaped espalier
My latest heart espalier is my 4th-I do not keep them for long.  This one, planted and successfully hardy in this large steel box for 4 years now, is happy, and grows vigorously.  This picture I took moments before its yearly haircut.  Wild at heart-yes!  A yearly haircut is not so much to ask in the way of care.  The pleasure?  Every day.  Every season.  Year after year.


A Tree Farm

Many farms lie fallow over the winter.  If I am shopping for trees, winter is prime time.  Evergreen trees are especially attractive in northern landscapes, as we have as much winter as we do any other season. Rows of them, lined out like crops, are beautiful to see.  It is easy to see the strength of the shape of a deciduous tree while it is leafless.  My first exposure to espaliered trees was courtesy of Al Goldner while I was working for him.  He was a landscape designer with a big love for plants-any kind of plant.  But he loved espaliers enough to grow them himself on his farm in Howell.       

I have written before on the history of espaliered fruit trees.  Trained by regular and judicious pruning to grow against a wall or fence meant lots of fruit could be grown in a very small space.  It is rare to find places where espaliers are grown-we know of just a few.  The trees on this farm are beautifully grown in the classic French style.  Row after row of trees are grown here on galvanized cattle fencing attached to oversized wood posts set in concrete.  The grid of the wire fencing makes it easy to see the precision and care with which these trees are grown.   

No tree is sold before its time.  This means the intended shape is completely realized, and the trunks and branches have grown to a size such that the tree is easy to maintain.  This takes years of growing and training.  There is the pruning of both the branches and the roots, and the training of the arms.  Trees must be shifted into larger pots as they grow.  Each pot is set into a pot sleeve set below grade, which helps to conserve moisture and keep the tree securely upright.  Billy is outdoors most every day, looking after them.  

This pair of espaliers is grown in a classic candelabra style, with one signature feature.  Each horizontal branch is turned and tied into an upright position, creating a U-shaped transition from horizontal to vertical.  I prefer this growing method over a horizontal branch that is topped, and a vertical branch created from a resulting break.  This makes for a graceful winter shape, as each candelabra arm is an entire and unbroken branch. Each L-shaped branch will always be a larger diameter where it meets the main trunk, and smaller at the vertical tip. Both of these candelabra espaliers are Kieffer pears; they will tolerate a less than sunny placement. The vertical branches can be topped, if the tree is placed on a wall.  These trees have been grafted onto dwarf rootstock. Alternately, the vertical branches can be allowed to grow as tall as 20 or 25 feet, providing the arms are anchored to the wall or chimney behind it.  

The encircled heart is likewise a signature form.  This shape is much more about romance, than architecture, or the efficient production of fruit.  Notice that the tree is planted in the rear third of the pot.  This makes getting the trunk close to a wall easy.  Years ago we bought bareroot espaliers, and potted them ourselves.  Fruit tree roots do not grow symmetrically around the trunk.  These espaliers are grown in a container the entire time they spend at the farm.  Yearly root pruning means they are shifted from 15 gallon pots to 25 gallon pots only once.   

This is one of my favorite purchases-a tunnel/arbor of Golden Galaxy crabapples grown in a two-tier candelabra style.  They take even longer to grow to a finished size, as they need to be 9 feet tall before they are trained overhead.  Though these trees have been grown to form a 6 foot wide tunnel, they can be placed as far apart as needed, and grown to size.   Having white flowers in the spring, and gold fruit in the fall, these trees would be a spectacular addition to any landscape.   

The fan shape is another classic espalier shape.  We spoke for a pair of them-one Gala apple, and one Seckel pear. They are very adaptable about growing to fit a very wide wall, that is not so tall. Or a tall wall that is not so wide.  Part of the fun of growing an espalier is custom training the growth in a pattern specific to its location.    

A series of trees grown such that their arms overlap to form diamond shapes is known as a Belgian fence.  This group of trees will stretch between 50 and 60 feet; the diamonds are 6′ by 6′.  I love the large scale of this fence; the diamonds will be easy to read even when the trees are in full leaf.  This fence, like the arbor, is grown from Golden Galaxy crabapples. 

This heart which we bought a few years ago had problems from the start which we were unable to correct.  We exchanged it for another heart.  I am not one bit surprised that Billy is growing it out of its trouble, into a new shape yet to come.  I would not be at all surprised to fall for it a second time around.   

We had two dry hours between storms- we took advantage of that.  26 strikingly beautiful trees will be on their way here, come early spring.