Wednesday 11 January 2023

Espalier - An Ancient Perennial Edible Art Project

Espalier is the ancient gardening technique that involves training a tree or shrub to grow flat, usually against a wall or trellis. Espaliers are commonly used in small gardens, courtyards, and even on balconies and are a great way to provide fruit in limited spaces. During this post, we'll take a look at the history and benefits of espalier, how to take care of espalier, and end with an espalier polyculture.  

At first glance, Espalier may appear to be some kind of plant torture but this is not the case. House plants slowly thirsting and starving to death in a dimly lit corner of a room, that's torture. Planting a garden in spring and then disappearing for the summer leaving the plants stranded in the hot sun, their cells dehydrating one by one, that's torture. You know when we continually adjust the position of our house plants when they lean over just when the plant has taken the time and effort to adjust its shoot system to capture all the light it needs. Along comes a symmetry-obsessed ape and spins it back to square one, that is plant torture. Espalier, on the contrary, is more like plant pampering. 

The Origins of Espalier

Espalier is a French word but is derived from the Italian word spalliera meaning “something to rest the shoulder against.” It's thought that we've been practicing this technique since the days of ancient Egypt, where hieroglyphs of espaliered fig trees have been found in tombs dating back to 1400 B.C. 

Trees are typically trained up against walls, along wireframes or trellises, and can take a variety of forms

Some espaliers can be huge taking up entire walls on a property but a lot of the time espaliers are grown on small structures to be easy to reach and manage.

It's also possible to grow them freestanding without any support or structures. We are trying this with an apple tree on the drip line of a lwalnut. 

As long as your espalier plants are well watered and fed and have enough light they will be fine. 

Why Espalier?

Espalier is great for a number of reasons

  • When you would like grow your own fruit but have limited space
  • If you only require a little fruit at a time but would like a lot of fruit diversity throughout the year.
  • For easy picking with no ladder or tools needed for harvest
  • Espalier can be used to provide a beautiful and functional subdivision or boundary 
  • It's a great option if you would like to grow multi-layers of light-demanding plants or if you would like to integrate fruit trees into an existing garden but do not want to create lots of shade.
  • In colder climates, when growing an espalier on a South facing wall or fence. The extra warmth provided by the wall's thermal mass makes it possible to grow fruit that would not be considered hardy or would not normally ripen.
  • If you appreciate an intimate relationship between you and a plant and enjoy the art of pruning and training fruit trees to a desired shape, like big Bonsai.

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What Plants to Choose?

Apple and pear are most commonly used for espalier with the spur-bearing cultivars producing the highest yields but you can use any fruit tree you wish. We have Sour Cherry- Prunus cerasus trained around a wall of an old adobe building in our backyard. We are not short of cherries at our place and a lot of the fruit produced from this tree is often left for the birds but it does serve as a good pollinator partner for the other Cherry trees in the garden. We are often removing vertical shoots and new growth that grow away from the stem and feeding them to the rabbits and pigs. Sour Cherry - Prunus cerasus being quite a vigorous grower can make quite a mulch machine when grown this way.

Whatever species of plant you choose, you should start with a “whip,” a 1m tall single-stemmed plant that has not yet grown any side branches, and the regular fruit tree selection criteria will apply

  • Climatic compatibility with your site
  • Select cultivars that are disease and pest resistant
  • Suitable size for your site i.e select suitable rootstock
  • Select plants that provide fruit when you require it
  • Make sure you have pollination partners and if you are only growing one, make sure it's self-pollinating
I'm looking forward to growing a Cornellian Cherry - Cornus mas espalier as a subdivision boundary within our Forest Garden. They take really well to Espalier.

Where to Grow

If you want to get a decent amount of fruit from your espalier it should be located in full sun (at least 6 hours of light per day) Espaliers can be grown against a wall, a sturdy trellis or pergola, along horizontal wires secured to sturdy free-standing posts or another flat surface. 

Growing against South facing walls offers climatic advantages absorbing heat and hastening fruit ripeness,  however, the problem with South facing walls is that the ground below can dry very fast when hot and will require attentive irrigation while the plant is establishing. You need good soil as the plants you select are probably going to be there for many decades, ideally deep, free draining, friable, fertile soil with a nice thick layer of mulch on top. 

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How and When to Prune

Pruning should begin in the spring after the blossom has emerged. Each blossom has the potential to become fruit so you can leave these and start to remove buds or shoots that are not aligned with your desired shape. Keep a close eye on the plant and continue to nip out buds that are growing away from the required shape and secure the shoot growth to the required direction. You should get a few fruits by the second year but it will take 4 or 5 years for the shape to form with each year more fruit provided. Eventually, there will be many fruits setting along the lateral branches and some support may be needed to prevent the branches from snapping. 

How to Build Espalier

You can find some very easy-to-follow instructions on youtube on how to set up your espalier frames whether that be out in the open or up against a wall. Basically, it involves building a frame and tying branches to it.

An Espalier Polyculture 

Here's a polyculture design that we have not yet implemented. It's a perennial productive polyculture that features a row of espalier apples and provides a succession of salad, vegetables, and apples throughout the year. It's ideal for smaller gardens or when you donʼt want to climb for your apples.  We'll be posting the full profile of this polyculture on this blog later in the year.  You can find full profiles for a number of other polycultures here.

Growth forescast

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