Espalier is one of those things that has been around forever (it dates at least to ancient Rome) but has somehow become forgotten over time. It is truly a lost treasure, because it still makes great sense, especially for foodscaping in an urban setting were space is limited.
The term espalier is a French word that was borrowed from the Italian spalliera, -something to rest the shoulder (spalla) against. It now refers to the practice of using a structure to train woody plants, typically fruit-bearing trees, along a two-dimensional plane. Imagine a grape trellis, but with apples, pears, plums, etc. Espalier fruit trees are very ornamental. They can turn a bare wall into a stunning piece of living art. They can be used as an attractive divider between sections of your landscape; or, as a living, fruit-bearing fence to screen the edge of your property. They can be trained against a south facing wall (in the northern hemisphere) which can absorb and retain heat. We found the idea of a fruit-bearing screen quite appealing. Our backyard backs up to a parking lot and an office building. When we moved to our house, there were giant thorn bushes all along our back property line. They were a great screen, but were not very ornamental and were a real pain to keep in check.
So we dug out the massive thorn bushes and replaced them with a 50 foot espalier row.
To build the structure, we buried 10 foot galvanized steel posts 2.5 feet deep and spaced them 10 feet apart. So, each tree has 10 feet of horizontal space and 7.5 feet of vertical space. With pruning and training, the trees are contained within a foot or two of the structure. Depending on the type of tree and the design one desires, wires can be spaced somewhere between 12″ and 24″. We planted five fruit trees in our 50 feet of space: an apple, a peach, an Asian pear, a nectarine, and a European pear. In our espalier row, the wires for the spur-bearing pome fruit (apples and pears) are spaced at 18″ and the wires for the stone fruit are 12″ apart. Because stone fruit trees bear fruit on one-year-old wood, they are more suited for a fan style espalier. Our espalier peach and nectarine will become somewhat informal fans. Apples and pears, on the other hand, can be trained to very elaborate shapes and into a more permanent form. They produce fruit on spurs that will continue to produce for years. Apples and pears have been trained into amazing shapes: multi-tier horizontal cordons, diagonal cordons, Belgian fence (lattice-shaped), candelabra, etc. Designs can be as complicated as the grower desires, but they can also be as simple as bending new growth toward the wires and pruning off whatever grows in the wrong direction. Either way, for those interested in espalier, I recommend The American Horticultural Society’s book Pruning & Training. It provides great detail and dedicates several pages to each type of fruit tree and a variety of forms they are well suited for.
To get a head start on our espalier row, the apple and pear trees we purchased were preformed multi-grafted espaliers with four varieties each. Here’s our apple and nectarine trees in their second growing season:
Picture update mid April 2018:
Picture update April 2019:
For a video showing how to prune and train espalier from least technical to most formal: fan style, horizontal cordons and our Belgian fence of apples, see our video here.
The pictures below are not our trees, but I’ll include them because they depict well the amazing finished 2 dimensional product of espalier training: