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All About Espalier


'Espalier' refers to the training of a plant or tree to grow flat against a wall or trellis.

Espalier has considerable merit in today's garden design. The practice was originally used in the old world to conserve space in small orchards and gardens. Today, espaliers are used for introducing a decorative accent in the landscape.

An espalier becomes a living sculpture in the garden. In landscape designs, we use espaliered plants and trees to cover unsightly, boring, or blank, windowless walls in the landscape. Espalier can bring an otherwise boring wall to life.

We also use espalier between widely spaced windows to add height in the foundation planting. Also, there are often tight, confined areas where spreading shrubs or trees cannot be effectively maintained to stay within the confines, but an espalier will fit. With landscape spaces becoming smaller around the single family house, espaliered plants have considerable appeal.


Our Favorite Plants/Trees for Espalier

For Sun - north or west walls:

Burning Bush - No support necessary.

Chaenomeles - Minor hardware attachments may be needed.

Forsythia (Yellow Bells) - Minor support needed for smaller barnches.

Burford Holly - No support necesary.

Holly 'Weeping Yaupon' - No support necessary. Minor attachment is suggested to train upright and hold against wall.

Jasmine Vines - Support in the form of a trellis, lattice, or wire structure is necessary.

Japanese Maple - Usually no support necessary.

Juniperus 'Hollywood'
- No support necessary.

Magnolia 'Little Gem'
- No support necessary. Minor attachment hardware may be necessary to train and hold against wall.

Magnolia 'Japanese Tulip Tree' - No support necessary. Minor attachment hardware may be necessary to train and hold against wall.

Apple, Crabapple - No support necessary. Attachment hardware may be necessary to train brances in patterns and to hold against wall. Heavy duty tellis structure is necessary to create live wall partitions.

Redbud Tree - Usually no support necessary.

Roses (Climbing) - Support or attachment hardware will be necessary.

Rose of Sharon (Althea) - Hardware is necessary to train against wall.

Yew (Podocarpus)
- Attachment hardware may be necessary to train and hold against wall.

Viburnum - No support necessary. Attachment hardware may be necessary to train and hold against wall.

Vines - Support in the form of a trellis, lattice or wire is necessary. For larger vines such as wisteria attachment hardware is necessary.


For Shade - south or east walls:

Anise Shrubs - Support not necessary. Attachment hardware is necessary to train branches in patterns and hold against wall.

Camellia japonica - Hardware is necessary to attach smaller branches to surface or support structure.

Camellia sasanqua
- Hardware is necessary to attach to surface or support structure.

Creeping Fig - A climbing clinger that needs no support.

Ivy - Clinging vine attaches itself to stucco, brick, or stone walls.

Pyracantha - Support or attachment hardware is necessary to train branches in patterns and hold against wall.

Redbud and Dogwood - Usually no support necessary.

NOTE: Many other plants not included in the above list can be used if they produce many lateral branches and can be severely pruned.


Espalier Techniques

There are numerous espalier techniques to employ; from the very simple, free flowing natural and informal designs to complicated formal patterns. below are a few ideas:

Little Gem Magnolia against wall
Pyracantha against wall


Camellia Sasanqua against wall
Rose of Sharon against wall


Apple Tree against wall
Apple Tree as fence


Pear Tree against wall
Pyracantha against wall


Creeping Fig on wall
Ivy on wall


Planting Esaplier

Most espalier plants are trained against a solid wall. The root ball of a plant should be planted 6-10 inches or more away from a wall to allow room for roots to grow and to provide adequate air circultaion. Lean plant towards wall when planting. Follow instructions in Planting a Shrub or Planting a Tree for proper installation.

NOTE: In foundation plantings make sure that the hole is dug just outside any eave or overhang so that the plants roots will receive the benefit of natural rain water.


Supporting Espalier Plants

Many espalier plants or trees require no support at all. When planting just lean them to grow up against the wall. In foundation plantings make sure that the hole is dug just outside any eave or overhang so that the plants roots will receive the benefit of natural rain water.

If support is needed or desired, any number of materials can be used as a support. If the wall is constructed of suitable material, the plant can be trained directly on the wall. If not, a tellis or wire structure can be used for support.

There are several hardware items useful for attaching the branches of plants or trees to walls. For masonry walls, u-bolts, eye bolts, and eye screws are helpful. They can be anchored by using expandable lead shields, or plastic plugs in the mortar joints. For supporting espaliers against a brick wall, anchoring devices are available at nursery and garden centers and hardware stores.


Training & Pruning Espalier

If you start with an unpruned plant, be sure to plant it far enough away from the base of the wall, and prune sparingly until the plant becomes established, then regular pruning and training as desired can be accomplished.

The secret of satisfactory results with espalier is to begin with a younger tree or shrub that has several well balanced limbs off the main trunk.

There are numerous patterns from which to select. These range from the formal checker-board patterns to the simple informal natural growth spread. Almost any design can be worked out with proper pruning. remember though, the simpler the design, the easier the maintenance.

To maintain an espalier, remove all stray branches that appear vertical; growing out from the flat surface and beyond the boundaries of the desired pattern. Pruning and the occasional tying of new shoots to the surface of the wall are the main maintenance jobs.

Most of the major pruning should be done while the plant is dormant, or if it is a flowering plant, be sure to prune in the appropriate season. Most flowering shrubs and trees should be pruned just after they bloom except for ones like crape myrtles which should be pruned in February or March. Remember that pruning does stimulate more growth. The limbs are most flexible during the summer. One can bend and train them to supports as the season progresses.

Once established, the espalier tree or shrub requires only a small amount of maintenance each season, yet it contributes year-round distinction to the garden.

A plant which has been espaliered correctly is a real work of art. Patience, skill, and creativeness is necessary for a successful project.

How to Espalier an Apple Tree
Espalier has a great deal of ornamental value - few garden scenes are more stunning than a blooming apple tree growing against a brick wall - but it’s also an effective technique for producing an ample crop of fruit in a small space. You don’t need an orchard to grow apple trees. A sunny wall, a special pruning technique and patience are all you need to espalier an apple tree.

To encourage substantial fruit production, prune with two objectives in mind. First, train the tree to the classic flattened, horizontal shape of espalier. Second, encourage the growth of short fruiting stems, or spurs, that will ultimately produce apples.

Start with a tree that has been grafted onto dwarf rootstock. All commercial apple trees are grafted onto roots from selected hardy apple trees. Some rootstock is dwarfing and will produce small trees. Other rootstock produces full-size trees. If you espalier a full-size tree, it will have much thicker, heavier trunks and branches. The fruit trees we stock at the nursery are too large for starting an espalier.

We recommend buying your 'dwarf' fruit tree(s) that you will use for espalier by mail order or from sources over the internet. Make sure to purchase dwarf varieties unless you are growing the tree on a very large and high wall.

Order Fruit Trees. Apple, Cherry, and more! 

You will begin with a 2- to 3-foot sapling, or whip, that is still very pliable and has not yet grown any side branches. It can be planted against a wall, a sturdy trellis or other flat surface. The wall will have an added advantage of absorbing heat to hasten ripening.

The following steps will get you on your way to creating an apple-bearing espalier.

1.String three to four rows of galvanized wire horizontally on the wall or trellis, about 2 feet apart.

2.Plant the 3-foot whip in the middle of the structure.

3.Find the lowest bud on the whip and prune off the wood above it. That bud should be about 2 feet from the base of the whip and coincide with the lowest wire. Lateral branches will begin to grow out and away from the cut.

4. Tie one end of a bamboo cane to the first horizontal wire and the other end to the young branch, pulling it down toward the wire and training it to grow along the wire. It usually takes two growing seasons to get branches to grow at right angles to the main vertical trunk.

5. In the meantime, the whip will continue to grow upward from the original bud you located when you made the first cut. Let it grow to the second horizontal wire and again make a cut above a bud. When lateral branches grow from that point, repeat the process of attaching them to the horizontal wires.

A typical espalier is 6 to 8 feet tall, with three to four sets of horizontal branches. Your goal is to keep the tree in bounds. Fruit yields will be proportionately much greater from an espalier than from a full-size tree.

It generally takes five to seven years to create a completed espalier structure and harvest fruit. Until that time, prune out any developing fruit. Your goal in the first few years is to encourage the tree to put all of its energy into growing branches that establish the basic framework. Once that happens, all future pruning is to encourage fruit production.

Apples on all trees, whether espalier or not, are borne on short stems called spurs. As buds and new shoots form along a lateral branch, prune them back to a point close to the branch where five leaves cluster around the stem. This encourages the buds on the bottom half of the lateral branch to produce fruit. This pruning will also remove the end buds that are more likely to produce leaves and stems.


Espaliered Camellia

When choosing sasanqua camellias to espalier, look for plants with open, sprawling growth and several leading branches.

Plant your camellias against the wall or trellis, then tie the branches back in either a symmetrical or informal pattern. Camellia branches can also be hooked to galvanised wires running horizontally along the wall, but they can also be tied to eye screws anchored into the brick wall with plastic plugs. Ties are needed about every 20cm (8"), and they will have to be loosened and adjusted as the plant grows. You can also use a steel or wooden trellis for support.

Prune regularly to achieve the flat, two-dimensional effect which is characteristic of all espaliers, but leave any major pruning until flowering has finished. Creating a formal espalier is time consuming and takes patience, but the end result is fabulous.

Artistic iron structures simulated to look like plants are also available. This form of wall art requires no maintenance at all and is quite attractive. We are presently looking for sources for these structures. You could design a structure yourself and hire a local iron smith to build it for you.


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