How to Espalier an Apple Tree

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By Charlie Nardozzi

The horizontal cordon system is one of the simplest espaliers to create.

Site your espalier fruit tree against a wall or building to create a warmer microclimate.

Many gardeners would love to grow apples, pears, peaches, and other tree fruits in their yard, but don't have the room or climate to accommodate them. While there are many dwarf tree fruit varieties on the market, sometimes even these trees are too large for a small yard. Plus, if you live in a cold winter or cool summer climate, some fruits just won't grow and mature well for you.

That was the same dilemma facing gardeners in northern France and England in the 16th century. Gardeners in cold winter areas wanted fruit trees, but didn't have the proper climate for it. So they developed a pruning technique that would allow these normally large trees to fit in small areas such as along a fence or wall. In this way they could create a microclimate along south, east, or west facing walls to grow fruit varieties that normally wouldn't produce in their area. They also found that trees trained in this way can be very productive. Espalier pruning continues to be popular in Europe, and is now done around the world.

What started as a way to grow trees in small spaces has turned into an art form. Espalier allows a gardener to create a beautiful work of art that will grace the landscape with interest in all four seasons. Espalier comes from the Italian word that means "something to rest the shoulder against." It's an appropriate term because all forms of espalier — cordon, fan, Belgium fence, candelabra — are all similar in that the trees are grown in a flat, two-dimensional plane, often against a wall or structure. One of the most common espalier designs is an apple tree trained to a horizontal cordon. You can now purchase fruit trees in an espalier form, but it's much more satisfying, and cost effective, to train your own. Here's how to get started.

Selecting Your Site and Tree

Plant your apple trees in full sun (6 to 8 hours a day) on well drained, fertile soil about 15 feet apart. A south, east, or west facing wall, fence, or building is best. You'll have to support the developing branches with a trellis system, so select a site where you can run a wire trellis outlining the ultimate shape of the tree. To help you along, if you have a rock, brick, or stone wall, sketch out the ultimate shape of the tree (usually three branch tiers spaced 2 feet apart with an ultimate height of 6 feet and width of 6 to 7 feet) with chalk on the wall. This will give you a design to follow. Anchor your wires into the wall or attach them to the fence.

While any apple can be espaliered, for a horizontal cordon system, choose a dwarf or semi-dwarf, spur-type apple variety. 'Macintosh' and its many crosses are good choices for the horizontal cordon system because their branches tend to grow horizontally already. 'Golden Delicious' is a nice choice if you only have room for one tree because it is self-fertile. 'Liberty' and 'Honeycrisp' are good modern varieties because they are disease resistant and require less spraying.

Make sure the espaliered tree is at least 6 inches away from the house so it doesn't effect the house siding.

Prune espaliered trees 2 to 3 times in winter and summer to keep the shape and growth habit.

Training the Young Tree

Now the fun begins. Here's a step by step process of training your young tree.

  1. Purchase one-year old whips (small, unbranched trunk) from your nursery and plant in spring.
  2. Plant your whip in the middle of your designed trellis wire system about 6 inches away from the wall or structure.
  3. Select a bud about 2 feet above the base of the graft union and prune off the rest of the whip just above it.
  4. Branches will begin to grow out from below the cut. Select the strongest 3 shoots and trim away the rest. When the shoots are 3 to 4 inches long, tie one to the right hand side wire and another one to the left hand side wire trellis.
  5. The third shoot will be allowed to grow vertically to the next horizontal level and repeat the pruning and training process.
  6. Any vertical or errant shoots that develop on the lateral tiers should be pruned back to 5 inches tall to create fruiting spurs (short branches with flower buds) which will be the locations of future fruits.
  7. You can create 3 to 4 horizontal trellises with your fruit tree depending on the size of the wall or structure.
Keeping it Going

It may take 3 to 5 years to get the entire fruit tree structure in place. Your tree, though, should start bearing fruit in a few years. Prune out any developing fruit the first few years. Remove any vertical shoots, suckers, and water sprouts each year and shorten horizontal branches back to create a fruiting spur. You may have to prune 2 to 3 times a year to keep the tree in shape. Because there will be more fruiting spurs produced on a horizontal branch than a vertical branch, eventually you will get a great number of fruits setting on your espaliered apple tree. Be sure to make the wire trellis and supports strong enough to hold the tree laden with fruit in place.

Each year continue pruning to maintain the shape of the espalier, and water and fertilize the tree to keep it healthy. Some old espaliered trees have lateral branches that are so thick they no longer need wire support and can be used to create an espaliered fence. Enjoy your work of art and once you're comfortable with apples, try other fruits and espaliered designs.

More stories on espalier:

Harvest Organic Fruit in Your Own Backyard
How to Espalier an Apple Tree

About Charlie Nardozzi
Thumb of 2020-06-04/Trish/0723fdCharlie Nardozzi is an award winning, nationally recognized garden writer, speaker, radio, and television personality. He has worked for more than 30 years bringing expert gardening information to home gardeners through radio, television, talks, tours, on-line, and the printed page. Charlie delights in making gardening information simple, easy, fun and accessible to everyone. He's the author of 6 books, has three radio shows in New England and a TV show. He leads Garden Tours around the world and consults with organizations and companies about gardening programs. See more about him at Gardening With Charlie.
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