Espalier - The Art of Designing Your Garden

Espalier is an ancient Roman gardening practice to train a tree to grow on a flat plane. This technique helps maximize limited space in your garden and create beautiful living sculptures of trees, shrubs, and vines against walls, fences, or trellis. The medieval European barons used Espalier technique to grow fruit trees inside castles, which had scant open space for gardening. The French and Italian nobleman made this beautiful practice the mainstay of their garden sculpture. The extensive use of this technique to shape fruit trees and vineyards in huge chateaus and palaces built in the 17th and 18th century Europe contributed to its popularity and replication world over.

Espalier Designs and Patterns

You can try numerous espalier designs that have evolved over hundreds of years. The following are some of the important formal and informal espalier designs used worldwide.

  • V-shaped: It is the most used espalier design and also the basic pattern on which other patterns are developed. Usually ropes or sticks are tied to the branches to keep them straight and V-shaped.
  • Stepover: A derivative of V-pattern, this horizontal style is the best espalier design for shrubs and vines. A rope is tied to branches 15 to 20 inches above the foundation and once the initial V shape is achieved, it is grown horizontally.
  • T pattern: This horizontal design requires multi-level training over the years. The limbs are first trained in V pattern in the beginning, then
    in the stepover style, and again in the V pattern after the second year of pruning to help the branches grow horizontally.
  • Belgian fence: A number of V-shaped espaliers are planted close to each other and tied to a trellis. When their branches cross each other, it creates a fence-like structure.
  • Palmette or fan shaped: Branches are trained to grow in a fan-shaped or radiating pattern. The espalier tree is grown in a V style, but cut back slightly to ensure that multiple buds form branches tied to a trellis.
  • Cordon: It is the simplest espalier pattern where the main stem of the tree is tied to a fence. A variety of angular informal cordon styles have come up in the recent years to apply espalier techniques for non-fruit trees.

Plantation and Maintenance Tips for A Good Espalier Tree

  • Use south-facing or west-facing walls or fences so that your espalier tree gets adequate sunshine.
  • Make sure that the soil is good and has proper drainage. It is important to be aware of soil type and water needs of different varieties of plants.
  • Use a wire frame while planting against a wall. Tie the branches to the frame or bolts on the wall with a rope and gently guide the tree limbs to follow the desired pattern.
  • Prune the espalier tree at least thrice a year and keep it in a proper shape. Remove stray vertical branches growing against the desired shape.
  • Provide adequate support for mature espalier trees laden with fruits so that it does not break down.
  • Go for dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties with well-paced branches that do not flatten the wall and have less height and are easy to prune.
  • Plant the espalier trees just outside eaves or overhangs so that they receive adequate water when it rains.
  • Keep a distance of 6-12 inches between the tree foundation and the wall. It allows the tree to have proper air circulation. This helps in effective growth of roots in all directions.
  • Prefer summer time for bending and limb training, when trees remain flexible.

Espalier trees require little time for maintenance and save space while adding a decorative accent to your garden landscape.