Espalier (ess-PAHL-yay) is the art of training a woody plant in two-dimensions. It is often used against a wall, fence, or trellis. Espalier is an ancient art with a long history in European, Mediterranean, and Early American gardens, but it is highly suitable to the modern landscape.
A designer’s delight
Espalier can be suited to any style of garden – formal, English country, cottage, contemporary. Large expanses of walls or fences can be adorned with evergreen espalier specimens such as camellias, gardenias, satsumas, kumquats or lemons. The shallow depth of the style allows the blossoms or fruits to be displayed prominently, like ornaments.
Deciduous specimens such as apples, pears, or figs offer year round beauty. In addition to spring blooms and summer foliage, the bare trunks and branches are a living sculpture throughout winter. Add some accent lighting, and the result can be dramatic.
Garden spaces can be defined by espalier. It can be used to partition garden rooms or be grown as living garden walls. Height is controllable as well as width and form, allowing espalier to define either the back or the front of a border. Espalier can even be installed as a living fence, as is often the case with a style called Belgian Fence.
Not only is it highly ornamental, there are some practical reasons to use espalier.
Because of its two-dimensional form, espalier can be used in spaces that are not suitable for full-sized specimens. Narrow side yards, courtyards, patio or pool margins, walkways and small door yard gardens are all places where espalier will expand your options. Espalier can also be used in containers, combining two space-saving elements in one effort.
Fruit or bloom quality
French kitchen gardeners discovered that the fruits grown low on the stem near the branching point were the largest and most flavorful. Espalier pruning creates many finger-long stems that bear blooms and fruits very close to the branching point. After their observation, the kitchen gardeners began to utilize espalier to produce the highest quality fruits for the table.
This technique also applies to blooming plants where plant energy is concentrated on producing large, stunning flowers. Camellias have been grown as espalier for centuries.
Training espalier in the home garden
Espalier can be trained in many forms. There are classical forms named for their general shape such as chevron, tiered, palmette, or candelabra. There is also a style of vertical column known as a single cordon. A little research and study should be put into making this selection, and a little trial and error must be applied to learning the art. It can be quite rewarding for the patient and artistic gardener.
The easiest way to approach espalier is the informal style. Using a sturdy trellis, stems are simply tied to the structure in a pleasing, open form. Stems and branches that extend past the intended two-dimensions of the espalier are tipped back, encouraging lateral growth and fullness.
To maintain a healthy tree, it is important that you use a stretchy tie-tape designed for garden use. String or wire should not be used since they can girdle and kill the branch. Check the tie-tape several times a year to make sure it is not becoming too tight as the plant grows and gains size.
To make sure the branch stays securely in place with less danger of girdling, tie the tape tightly to the trellis or support where you want the branch or stem, then loop it a bit loosely around the branch or stem to secure it in position. You still need to stay on top of checking this occasionally, but this method prevents a lot of girdling issues.
Apply proven cultural basics
Other than pruning and training, maintenance of your espalier is no different than any similar specimen in your garden. Practice good planting techniques from the very beginning, apply compost once or twice a year, mulch with a good organic material, and fertilize regularly with a slow release organic fertilizer like Arbor Gate Blend.
Start with a simple design, but enjoy experimenting and learning. Perhaps one day your garden will have an amazing living sculpture like this one.