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 2013 Espaliers

It is no secret that I am very fond of espaliered trees.  Espaliers?  These are trees or shrubs which are pruned to a 2-dimensional shape.  Though the practice dates back many centuries, a French monk, Fr. Legendre, published a book in 1684 entitled  “Palmette Legendre”.  He detailed his method for drastically pruning fruit trees so they could be grown against the monastery walls.  This made it possible to grow many more trees, and harvest more fruit, in a small space.  The French word espalier is derived from the Italian word “spalliera”, meaning “something to rest the shoulder (spalla) against”.  These fruit trees rested their shoulders against the wall.

unloading-the-espaliers.jpgFr. Legendre discovered that fruit trees that were subject to this kind of hard pruning, and enjoying the warmth generated by the wall,  produced better yields.  The growth generated in the third dimension would be cut back to the fruiting spurs. The first espaliers were pruned to encourage long horizontal arms.  It seems that horizontal branches bear more fruit than vertical ones. This horizontal shape is known as a cordon, and is quite similar to how grapes are pruned.


Eventually, many different styles of pruning emerged.  Some styles are just as decorative as they are utilitarian.  The tree pictured above has been trained into a classic fan shape.  All of the primary arms radiate outward from the trunk in the shape of a fan. This shape is great for a wall that is both tall and wide.  Blank walls in the landscape are a perfect spot for an espalier.  The pattern of green, light and shadow that the tree creates provides interest in a spot that is otherwise empty.  Should I under plant an espalier, I like like a short growing plant.  Part of the beauty of an espalier is being able to see the entire shape, from top to bottom.

espaliered-trees.jpgEspaliers are traditionally created from fruit bearing trees.  Though apples prefer a sunny location to fruit well, a pear tree is fairly tolerant of a shady location.  I am partial to pears.  Their glossy leaves are beautiful, and they seem more resistant to fungal problems.  Many fruit trees require another tree for cross pollination.  If you want to grow an espalier for fruit, be sure you grow a pair, or pick a variety that is self pollinating.  All  fruiting trees are beautiful when they bloom in the spring.  An espalier fruit tree in full bloom is especially gorgeous, as the white flowers dramatically detail the geometry of the shape.

These four espaliers are Kieffer pears, trained in the candelabra form.  It is easy to see here that an overall form has been determined for the large branches.  Once a horizontal branch reaches the width desired, the young branch is turned towards the sky, and tied to a form.  That branch will require support until it gets enough to stand on its own.  Pear wood hardens off quickly.  If you are training an espalier, be sure to make any change in direction when the branch is still very young.  Barely visible at the top of this picture is a horizontal fish line.  The branches are tied to this to keep them vertical, and keep them the desired distance from neighboring branches.  We have secured the branches in this manner for display only.  Once they are planted against a wall, galvanized steel eyes will need to be installed in the mortar.  The branches will be tied to those eyes using a flexible and expandable landscape tie.

espaliered-rose-of-sharon.jpgThough a fruiting tree is a traditional subject for an espalier, lots of trees and shrubs readily take to this kind of pruning.  Pictured above is a white rose of sharon, trained into a fan. The picture is not the best.  Imagine many branches emerging from the soil in a line., rather than a mass.  Any branch which emerged from the ground outside of the line-either to the front or back-was removed.  The fan is created with many branches, rather than just a select few.  This shape of this shrub reminds me of fan coral.  It will be a solid mass of green, in leaf-and a solid mass of white in flower.

A Belgian fence is a series of espaliered trees that are planted equidistant from each other. Each interior tree has a single trunk which comes up up out of the ground about 18″.  Years ago, that trunk was pruned down to 18″.  A pair of emerging side shoots were trained at a specific and repeating angle.  The collection of trees produces multiple diamond shapes.  Ideally, each diamond is the same size as its neighbor.  Maintaining the diamond shapes requires faithful and regular pruning.  The larger and simpler the diamonds, the easier the care.  This group of trees are Calloway crab apples.  They have a beautiful cinnamon colored bark, and flower and fruit like all crab apples.

The large espaliers in this picture are lindens-old lindens. The cordon espaliers in front of them-Bradford pears. Both species are ornamental, and tolerate hard pruning. These trees may also be allowed to fill in between the horizontal layers. This would result in a solid thin wall of green.  They could be grown against a wall, or as a freestanding green wall.  Any espalier which is grown as a fence will need lots of support and direction in the early years.  Big bamboo stakes are prefect for this.  The bamboo you see on the foreground trees was attached to keep all the branches in place during shipping.

This espalier has been grown in a goblet shape. The change in direction from a horizontal to vertical is a gently curve, as opposed to the right angle of a candelabra style.  As the main arms are fairly well established, we only needed to secure the tops of the branches to keep the tree representing its intended shape.


These fan espaliers are apples and pears of various varieties.  A whole orchard could be grown in a relatively small space.  Training espaliers is an art form, but a form that can be learned.  As slowly as trees grow, you would have time for your knowledge to grow.  A large caliper espalier is an investment, mainly due to the years it took to get it to size.  This particular grower does not sell any trees unless they are at least 7 years old.  Over the course of that 7 years, he waters and feeds, and keeps the yellow bellied sapsuckers from drilling holes in their trunks.  He has trees that have had a major arm die back-heartbreaking this.  But once an espalier is established, they are no more care than any other tree or shrub.  Some nurseries and garden centers carry 1-2 year old plants.  This makes it easy to give one a try.

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.

Trees For Very Shallow Spaces

I have written about espaliered trees before.  Proper pruning is an important element of good garden maintenance.  But espalier-making is the intersection of the science of how things grow with the art of gardening. Interested in a little something about that history?  Search the post Palmette Legendre for my short take on the practice of growing trees in two dimensions.  The posts “Green Walls”, and “the 2010 espaliers” further that discussion.  Given this week devoted to some thoughts about trees and the spaces they require, espaliered trees come to mind.  These four old Katsura trees have been patiently trained for many years to grow wide and flat.  As you can see, some of the arms have outgrown the stakes that keep them horizontal.  They will continue to grow vertically, until I retie them to their training stakes.   They are ready to make a flat green wall  in a very narrow space.    

Viewed from the side, the trunks and foliage of these katsuras occupy barely 2 feet of space. The rootballs are more than twice the size of the tops.  A grower in Oregon grew these incredible trees, given enormous patience, and a great love of plants.  A great deal of work was needed to train these trees into this shape.  Cercidiphyllum, or katsure, had a broadly oval natural shape. Changing that shape involves training from a very early age.     

I bought old espaliered lindens from the same grower.  I had to have them.  I paid to dig, ball and burlap, and ship 14 espaliered trees across the country in a refrigerated truck.  Nuts, yes. Think of me what you will, but these old espaliers are extraordinarily beautiful plants, and almost all of them are spoken for now. Most of the espaliers I buy are young, and of small caliper.  They need  a support system in order to maintain their shape.  Many espaliers are grown against a wall, for this reason.  These trees are old enough to be a wall.  It is hard to see in this picture, but the horizontal arms are  being held in place by vertical stakes.  These stakes maintain a uniform distance between each arm.Three of the old linden espaliers got placed in a small side garden.  The grade behind them rises steeply; the property line is barely 3 feet beyond the espaliers.  Once the arborvitae grown, this garden will feel like a room with the sky for a ceiling. This is a garden in the process of becoming a place to be.  A decision will need to be made fairly soon.  If the horizontal branches are not kept pruned, the green stripes will become a green plane.Almost any tree can be trained in two dimensions.  These crabapples have been pruned in a classic candelabra form.  The vertical stakes holding the arms in place are attached to wires, which are held a few inches away from the wall with bolts.  This permits good air circulation on the backside of the branches.

This is the third year in the ground for these crabapples.  They dress up this massive stone wall without obscuring it.  The total width of the bed from the wall to the bluestone terrace is 4 feet.  In the absence of any green, this space would feel a little too desolate.  Alternating with the espaliers-blocks of Green Mountain boxwood.  They naturally grow taller than wide. 

This crabapple has been trained in a fan shape.  Each arm radiates out from the trunk in a symmetrical fashion.  Growing an espalier in a symmetrical shape requires the selection and training of that branch which appears in exactly the right spot.  I would be much better at keeping up an espalier that had been trained for a few years, than starting one from scratch.    

This fan espalier has been trained one step further.  In addition to fanning out, it has been trained to grow over the sides of the chimney.  Young tree branches are flexible, and will adapt to this training.  Once the twigs attain some size, the shape often becomes self-supporting.  It wil be very interesting to see the shape of this tree in 10 years. 

This espalier has an entirely free form shape.  Taking up little more than 2 feet on the face of this wall, it is a striking addition to this garden.  The combination of the narrow wood clapboard, the espalier, and the Annabelles in bloom makes quite the picture.

Driving up the street to this property for the first time, I was struck by how this giant bare wall seemed to be asking for something.  As maintaining access to the lake was a very important issue, an espalier of some kind seemd like a good idea.

These 5 trees are trained in an espalier pattern known as a Belgian fence.  When these apple trees were a single whip, 4 feet tall, they were pruned down to within a foot of the ground.  When a pair of branches emerged at that cut, they were potted, and staked to create the beginning of a lattice fence.  Given another 10 years, they will cover this section of wall, and provide plenty of apples.  Were I a young gardener, I would make it my business to espalier something-for the fun of it now, and the beauty of it later.