Espalier: the traditional art enjoying a revival

By | August 10, 2019

It’s an ancient gardening art, but espalier is making a big comeback in gardens to save on space and bring structural elegance to the modern garden.

Espaliering is the art of training a tree or shrub to grow against a wall or fence to create a flat two-dimensional affect. It’s a technique steeped in history that dates back to ancient Roman and Egyptian times, but it was during the Middle Ages in Europe that the art of training trees was perfected.

Fruit trees were artfully espaliered against castle walls to provide fruit and decoration, without encroaching on the courtyard space. The flattened trees were grown against brick or stone which absorbed the sun’s heat and created a favourable micro-climate for fruit production.

Today, espaliering creates a decorative compact tree perfect for city courtyards and small spaces. Because trained trees are more compact, they make picking and netting fruit easier, fruit often ripens earlier and the flowers and fruit are artfully displayed. So, with a little patience and thoughtful pruning you can create a living work of art in your garden.

Espaliers can take many forms, but horizontal is good for beginners.

Espaliers can take many forms, but horizontal is good for beginners.

Virtually any tree can be espaliered into a basic shape, but some trees do work better than others.

Apples and pears create beautiful espaliers, so do olives and citrus. Other fruit trees like cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots can also be crafted into simple designs. For something different, try your hand at espaliering a fruiting vine like a grape or kiwi fruit. If you prefer blooms to fruit, flowering cherries and plums, crab apples, cercis and crepe myrtle all make lovely espaliers.

Winter reveals the bare branches and form of deciduous fruit trees like apples and pears, so it’s the perfect time to design and create an espalier. Adventurous gardeners can choose from a range of designs, from fan shapes to U shapes, candelabra designs and intricate diamond patterns that command attention, but if you’re just starting out then opt for a simple horizontal espalier.

Cyclone's Aluminium Bypass pruner has a strong aluminium body with a drop forged cutting blade to make light work of creating an espalier.

Cyclone’s Aluminium Bypass pruner has a strong aluminium body with a drop forged cutting blade to make light work of creating an espalier.

How to create a horizontal espalier

You’ll need a quality pair of secateurs to get your espalier started and maintain the decorative shape over time, such as Cyclone’s Aluminium Bypass .

  1. Erect a series of wires on your fence or wall roughly 30 cm apart using eye bolts, to create a tight network of guide wires. The eye bolts push the wire out from the wall to allow for good air circulation and make it easier to maintain and prune the tree.
  2. Plant your tree as close to the fence or wall as possible and line up the trunk with the centre of the wires
  3. Then simply match the side branches to each wire to create a series of horizontal tiers. You might need to lightly bend a few branches to meet the guide wires. Tie each branch to the wire using flexible ties, placed every 20 cm or so. Then prune off any branches that don’t fit the pattern.
  4. As the branches grow, gently tie them to the wires and prune out any new growth that doesn’t match your shape. Prune up to three times a year to keep your espalier looking good.

Over time you’ll see the shape of your tree develop beautifully. The first year is all about establishing the framework of your espalier. In the second year the design really starts to take shape.

Depending on the size of the tree you started with, you can expect to have a beautiful espalier within five years (that only gets better with age).

It’s a labour of love, but an artfully trained espalier, laden with flowers or fruit, is sure to be a main attraction in your garden or courtyard.

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