Espalier – the Art of Training your Tree

tree trimming
Espalier – the Art of Training your Tree

What is an “espalier” you may be asking yourself. The term espalier has changed over the years. Originally it defined a trellis, or a frame, to which a tree was to be tied. It presently refers to the process of training your tree or plant. The purpose of an espalier is to be able to grow a tree in limited space. The process originated with fruit trees in order to provide fruit in small gardens and courtyards. This art is now primarily used for decoration or privacy.

It is possible to purchase plants that have been espaliered; however, they are typically much more expensive than free standing plants. For the price of purchasing one espaliered plant, you could espalier two to three free standing plants on your own. Besides, performing the espalier yourself is part of the fun, although it does take some work getting it set up as well as annual maintenance.

Most espaliered plants are grown against walls where limited space is available. An example of a perfect spot would be on the side of a garage that has a walkway along the side. You may wish to hide the side of the garage, while preserving the space within the walkway. An espaliered plant will allow you to do this, as it will grow verticle, and will spread laterally along the structure, without encroaching on the path. Another perfect place for an espaliered tree is between neighbor’s homes. This will provide privacy while taking up very little space as the tree begins to grow.

It is important to remember to leave between 6″ and 10″ of space between any walls and the plant. This will allow the roots to grow, as well as preventing bugs from having easier access to any buildings, and will also prevent trapped moisture against any structures.

A wire frame is often used in place of a trellis when planting against a wall. You can sink or screw eyebolts into the side of a building, and tie a wire frame between the eyebolts. This will need to be done in height intervals of approximately one foot. The branches will then be tied to the wires versus a wooden trellis.

It is best to start with a small tree whose branches are still flexible. This will allow them to bend, in order to be tied to the trellis or frame. “Ugly” trees are perfect to espalier. You do not need a full, thick plant, as you will have to prune several branches that sprout out in various directions.

Position and plant the tree so that the flattest side will be flush against the trellis. Doing this should limit the amount of pruning necessary. Tie the leader branch (the primary verticle branch) to the trellis or wire frame with a twist tie or zip tie.

With the leader branch tied, prune away any branches that protrude forward or backward. This will leave you with branches sprouting laterally to the sides, running along the trellis or wire frame. Once the tree has been pruned, begin tying the laterals to the frame at approximately 45 degree angles from the ground. Do not put too much pressure on the branches to bend. Once all of the lateral branches are tied, you have started your very own espalier, for a fraction of the cost of purchasing one at a retail store.

An espaliered tree will require annual maintenance as it continues to grow. The second year you should be able to lower the laterals that were originally tied at 45 degree angles to a horizontal position, i.e. parallel to the ground, and retie them in the lower position. New growth should be tied in at 45 degree angles. Any branches that cannot be trained due to sprouting out forward or backward will have to be pruned.

You will repeat the process each year of moving the 45 degree laterals down to a horizontal position, and tying new growth in at 45 degrees, or pruning the new growth. As the tree grows you will be able to fill in any empty spaces in the frame.

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