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History, science, and art join forces when you espalier fruit trees. This classic technique dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when master European gardeners --using the artistic and scientific principles of pruning--invented ways to grow productive fruit trees in confined areas.

But espaliers are especially useful today. They can provide an abundance of fruit in a small space--along a fence or a wall, in a side yard or a narrow planting bed. Even the smallest garden can easily accommodate several.

If well cared for, they look good all year, from spring bloom through harvest. (Deciduous kinds reveal attractive, geometric skeletons when leafless in winter.) They can also add a strong focal point to home gardens, serve as living fences that define or separate sections of the garden, or dress up a stark wall.

Although they require more attention during the growing season than unstructured trees do, the rewards are well worth the effort. Espaliered fruit trees begin fruiting at an early age, and pruning, pest control, and harvest are all within easy reach. Also, by planting figs or frost-tender fruit such as citrus against a warm, south-facing wall, you can grow them outside their normal climate range.

Formal or informal: how do you choose?

Formal espaliers are trained into precise geometric patterns; one example is the Asian pear on page 83. The less vigorous the tree, the easier it is to maintain such a rigid structure. Informal espaliers like the fig trees at left are trained along a single plane--as are formal ones--but their form is less structured. Vigorous trees adapt best to this style.

Semidwarf and dwarf apple and pear trees are easiest to train, so they're the best candidates for formal espaliers. Both develop long-lived fruiting spurs (short shoots that form flowers and bear fruit for up to 20 years); and their branches are flexible and can be bent easily. Even though growth is severely restricted by pruning, trees will fruit heavily.

Avoid tip-bearing apples such as "Granny Smith', "Jonathan', and "Rome Beauty'; it's much more difficult to keep these fruiting. Also, avoid apple trees on standard rootstocks. Trees on a semidwarf rootstock, such as M.M. 106, do well when trained along large walls and fences. For small areas, use dwarf rootstocks, such as M.M. 9 or Mark.

Like vigorous kinds of fruit trees, varieties that fruit on young wood--citrus, figs, persimmons, and pineapple guava--will do much better if you train them informally. Figs and persimmons grow best when trained into informal fans; to renew fruiting wood and keep plants in bounds, prune off much of the old wood on the scaffold branches during the dormant season. Prune pineapple guava in spring.

Citrus can also be trained into informal fans, or into a more formal design such as horizontal cordons. But to maintain fruit production, the foliage should be allowed to grow in thickly (see the espaliered lemon in Sunset's courtyard, shown on page 86); use dwarf citrus--"Bearss' lime, "Eureka' lemon, mandarins, and ornamental citrus (to learn more about ornamental citrus, see page 68 in the December 1987 Sunset).

As you gain experience with espaliers, you may want to experiment with more difficult subjects, such as apricots, cherries, or plums. Cherries and plums produce fruit on long-lived spurs, but they're difficult to control (their growth habit is very upright, and their limbs are less flexible than those of apples and pears).

Try training cherries and plums into more upright espalier shapes--candelabra or U-shaped. To increase the flexibility of a young limb when training it into the horizontal position (to start the bottom of the candelabra, for instance), grab it at its base, gently flex the limb back and forth a few times in the direction opposite the one in which you intend to bend it, and then slowly ease it down.

When training cherry branches horizontally, let the terminal portion of a branch grow upward until it reaches its ideal length, then bend it laterally. Otherwise, the branch may stop growing too soon.

Apricots have short-lived spurs that fruit for only two to four years. The primary challenge is to keep the tree in production by replacing old fruiting spurs with new ones. Train new shoots on a regular basis and prune off ones that have stopped fruiting.

How to begin training

To espalier a tree, you need to provide some sort of support and a scaffold on which to train young shoots. For a freestanding espalier, use a wooden trellis or build a structure--use galvanized wire (12 to 14 gauge) stretched between 4-by-4 posts. For trees trained on fences or walls, use eye screws threaded with wire. Set wires about 18 inches apart.

Best time to start a deciduous fruit tree is in winter, when plants are dormant. With citrus trees, start espaliers in early spring, after frost.

In cool-summer climates, set plants in full sun; for air circulation, set 6 to 8 inches from walls and fences. To prevent sunburn in hot-summer areas, avoid planting against a light, south-facing wall--and maintain foliage around developing fruit.

How much room you leave between plants depends on the design you choose. For a horizontal cordon, candelabra, or palmette, set trees at least 6 feet apart. For Belgian fences (or doublets) or oblique cordons, set trees 2 to 4 feet apart.

The horizontal cordon diagrams on page 85 outline the basic principles you'll need for any espalier design (except oblique cordons and Belgian doublets); the only differences are the direction in which you bend branches and where you make cuts after heading them back at planting time.

It's best to start with unbranched whips that have not been topped at the nursery. If all you can find is a tree with branches, cut those off at planting time unless two well-formed ones oppose one another at the level of the first wire.

Unlike the other designs, oblique cordons and Belgian doublets do not call for heading back at planting time. Buy whips whose tops haven't been cut off, prune off any branches, and plant at 60| angles.

Prune apples and pears to develop a structure and to form fruiting spurs

For the first few seasons, your primary goal is to develop a uniform structure and form fruiting spurs. If necessary to keep branches growing in balance, lower the angle of too-vigorous branches and raise the angle of those lagging behind in growth. Branches will grow more slowly as they are lowered into the horizontal position.

You may not have to prune much the first season, since the horizontal branches often don't develop lateral growth until they're about 36 inches long. But keep your eye on the tree; if laterals reach 12 inches, prune them back to three buds.

For a Belgian fence, candelabra, formal fan, or palmette, follow the diagram above right to train branches at different angles. Wood splints tied to branches help keep developing limbs straight.

As plants mature, continue cutting back lateral growth to encourage fruiting spurs and to maintain the shape. Completely remove any excessively vigorous shoots. Learn to recognize fruiting buds (they're shorter and fatter than leaf buds) so you don't cut them off. Most apples and pears start producing fruit on the first tier in two to three years.

When plants reach their optimal size, cut back the central leader to just above the top branch. To keep horizontal branches at the right length, prune back the ends to a downward-facing side branch in late spring and summer.

Maintaining your espalier

Older plants tend to become more vigorous on top. To avoid shading the bottom part of the tree and losing fruiting spurs, keep the top growth trimmed back. A fruiting spur will continue fruiting as long as light reaches the leaves around it.

If you lose a major structural branch, try to retrain a new one in its place. You may be able to force a bud to grow by pruning back the dead branch to live wood. If a young shoot on the opposite side of the tree is in a good position, you can even bend it--carefully and gradually--toward the other side to form the new branch.

Photo: Double U is one of many new shapes now available on trellises. Hers is an acerola cherry

Photo: Candelabra. Trained against a wooden fence, European pear produces masses of white flowers in spring

Photo: Horizontal cordon has seven tiers. At the peak of harvest, ripe Asian pears dangle from long arms trained on a curved shingled wall









Photo: Belgian doublet. Luscious "Pettingill' apples are within easy reach on this low fence. Bare-root whips were planted two to a hole, facing opposite directions at 60| angles. Design was by Santa Barbara landscape architect Isabelle Greene

Photo: Informal fan. Pruned flush against a stucco wall, these two fig trees break up and soften the expanse of white; reflected heat hastens ripening of fruit

Photo: At planting time, head back the whip to just above the bottom wire. Keep three buds--two facing in opposite directions and one to grow vertically. On branched whips, cut back branches to trunk unless well positioned

Photo: First growing season: for horizontal cordons, select two well-placed branches developing just below the first wire and train a third one to grow vertically. Remove all other shoots. When branches are young and supple, bend them down at a 45| angle and secure to wire with plastic nursery ties. Gradually lower and tie branches to a horizontal position by the end of the season

Photo: First and successive dormant seasons: for a second tier of horizontal cordons, head back the central leader to just above the second wire. Add tiers by repeating this process until leader reaches top wire

Photo: Second and successive growing seasons: train the second tier as you did the first. Adjust angles of branches--raise to increase vigor or lower to reduce it--so they stay in balance. As soon as lateral growth on trunk and branches reaches 12 to 14 inches (check plant every two to three weeks), prune back to three buds. If pruned laterals grow out again, cut back to another three buds, so six buds remain

Photo: Belgian fence. He's harvesting apples; eight varieties make up this freestanding fence. Symmetry of the crisscrossing branches is readily apparent in winter (right)

Photo: To keep branches straight when training them at angles, affix bamboo stakes or pieces of lath to wires at the appropriate angles; tie branches to splints at several points. If necessary, move wood to change angle of branch

Photo: Horizontal cordon. Thirty-five-year-old "Eureka' lemon fence in Sunset's patio still produces tasty fruit. Wire and posts support 10 standard trees planted 10 feet apart (plant dwarf citrus 8 feet apart)
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:training fruit trees
Date:Feb 1, 1988
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