April 9, 2014

Espalier, I

Free-standing espaliered fruit trees in the kitchen garden of landscape designer, Bunny Guinness.
Photo by Robin Baker for Contemporary Designers' Own Gardens

Whimsy and personality in the landscape are as important to me as having more than one color & style in my closet. But since my garden-in-progress is small, everything that goes into it has to fill the tall order of being hard working, practical & beautiful all at once. Espaliered trees, particularly espaliered apple & pear, not only provide more than their fair share of beauty, they are well-suited to the size & growing requirements of the modern garden, & they provide fruit to eat. It's hard to get more practical than that.
When space allows, some espaliers can take very elaborate forms, such as this espaliered apple tunnel at Highgrove. via Cote de Texas

An ancient horticultural practice, espalier, pronounced in the U.S., əˈspælyər or əˈspælˌyeɪ, is the practice of shaping & pruning a tree or shrub into an unnatural shape, free-standing or planted along a wall or fence. It is similar to pleaching, in that the tree or shrub is trained into a two-dimensional form & the branches shaped & pruned throughout its life to maintain the shape.

Espaliered apple trees along a wall. The branches are low, & the fruit is easily harvested. 
photo courtesy, Steve James

Developed by the ancient Romans, the art of espalier was perfected by the French who gave it its name based on the French word épaule, meaning shoulder. 

In the United States, espaliered apple trees were grown at Robert E. Lee's Virginia birthplace, Stratford Hall and by George Washington in his Mt. Vernon kitchen garden.

A 'Red McIntosh' espalier from Winchester Gardens.

I won't try to convince you that training espaliered trees isn't a bit labor intensive. I confess; a couple of my attempts at espalier have ended in disappointment on the trash heap. So what are the benefits?

An espaliered crabapple in fall. Garden designer, Arne Maynard uses hazel branches cut from his property to form the supports for his free-standing espaliered crabapples.

Size & Variety
Their shape and size allow espaliered trees to be planted where, grown naturally, the same plant might be completely impractical or impossible, such as along the wall of a house, within the limited confines of a typical suburban backyard, or in urban settings. As their French name suggests, many forms are grown no higher than the shoulder, & are easily reached for harvesting fruit by everyone, including those who are wheelchair-bound, and children. The compact size of the espaliered fruit tree also allows a gardener to grow a wider variety of trees within the available space.

Health & Productivity
Once its form is established, an espaliered fruit tree is pruned & trained to focus its energy on the production of fruiting wood, so an espaliered fruit tree bears earlier & more heavily than non-espaliered trees. 

Because of the frequency of the contact the gardener must have with the tree to maintain its shape, potential problems are spotted & can be treated earlier. 

Good Looks
My favorite part-- they just look good. Espaliered trees are interesting in all seasons. In the summer, developing fruit sits neatly in clusters along the length of branches surrounded by green leaves, looking like something out of a fairy tale. In winter, the twists & turns of the branches are an interesting break in the dreary landscape and hold snow in interesting patterns. In spring, the branches' shapes are accented by flowers, and in fall, ripened fruit hangs within easy view & reach.

Although widely-available in Europe I'm told, espaliered trees are not hugely common in the United States, perhaps particularly so in the Midwest where finding ready-espaliered trees is difficult, so they represent something rather unusual in a lot of American gardens. 

Pears espaliered into the form known as "Belgian Fence" on the front terrace of the home of  the talented Nashville, TN designer, Jeannette Whitson form an attractive barrier. See more of Ms. Whitson's beautiful work HERE, and the article about her home in House Beautiful HEREPhotos by Simon Watson

Another view of Jeannette Whitson's espaliered pear "Belgian Fence".  
Privacy & Boundaries
Lastly, espaliered trees are a beautiful way to solve common privacy & landscaping problems. Privacy concerns are often greatest where space is limited. Similar to pleached hedges, espaliered trees make excellent privacy screens and boundaries while taking up very little space, & unlike some fences, do so without sacrificing looks.

 My espaliered apple trees, planted along a south-facing wall. The tree on the left is 'Red McIntosh' and on the right, 'Yellow Delicious'.

In my backyard, the wall along which my two espaliered apple trees are planted was something of a bore to see. It was big, beige, & bare. The wall is visible from most of the windows at the back of my house, so growing something there with the looks of a tomato plant just wasn't an option. I was lucky to find these espaliered apple trees-- a Yellow Delicious & a Red Macintosh-- already espaliered at a local nursery. I'm typing with crossed fingers that they grow up to be as gorgeous as Jeannette Whitson's!

In my next espalier post, I'll show you a variety of espalier shapes, direct you to resources for choosing your trees, & information about training & pruning.

Thank you for reading!

March 21, 2014

All Change

Some weeks are full of change. This has been one of them for me. Not big, exciting, dramatic changes-- just small ones-- changes of schedule, changes in plans, slow & halting progress on my ambitious to-do list. I've felt like a Ferrari engine tearing around on the wheels & frame of a little red wagon. So it must have been Providential that, also this week, I read the Psalm that says, Your gentleness has made me great. I made it my motto. Live gently. And can you believe that while I focused on keeping cool, enjoying each minute, & letting go of what I couldn't control-- spring still arrived, rain still fell, and buds still sprang from the trees? All the work I wanted to get done-- it's still here to! 

 One of the incomplete items on that To-Do list  was a post on the horticultural art of espalier (es-pal-YAY). It sits unfinished in my blog drafts, so here's a little prequel. In the photo above is an espaliered pear tree from This Old House. Espalier is the art of training trees and shrubs to grow flat along a framework, usually a wall or fence. Not only is espalier a space-saving technique, in the case of fruit trees, the tree bears fruit much more heavily than it otherwise would. 

I've wanted to grow espaliered fruit trees for years. Last weekend my husband unexpectedly came across a small selection of already trained espaliered apple trees at a local nursery, and I now have two of them planted along a south facing wall in my backyard. Although common in Europe, finding fruit trees already trained into espalier form is difficult in the United States, and in my small town, previously non-existent.

So standby. In the coming days I will photograph my wall of espaliers and pass along the helpful instructions, links & books that first peaked my interest in the art & have helped get me started with the growing & training process. You may also like to take a look at this collection of beautiful espaliered forms that I've saved on Pinterest.

Until then,
Live Gently. 


March 9, 2014

Hyacinth Bean Vine, (Lablab Purpureus)

I'm still here!-- not frozen in place or blown away with the snow, just being a little hermit-like while spending time poking seeds into little containers of potting mix, my futile attempt at hurrying spring.

Dark green leaves with purple veins, & lavender, white & pink flowers on Hyacinth Bean vine, growing last summer at my local Botanical Garden.

Last year I wrote about growing Hyacinth Bean vine (Lablab purpureus, formerly Dolichos lablab). So desperate I must've been to grow something green, I started the seeds indoors in late January, many weeks before I should've. I spent the rest of winter nursing them along indoors until, finally, I was able to plant them out the first of May. Their growing days were severely numbered though. An unusually late snow fell on May 3, damaging or killing all but one of my little vines.

Showing the underside of one of the purple-veined leaves, top left, variation in bloom color & deep purple stems that hold the sweet-pea-like flowers of Hyacinth Bean vine.  

Fortunately, the gardeners at the botanical garden in my city were much luckier than I (or simply planned better). Their specimens of Hyacinth Bean were thriving in full sun on a scorching day when I  took these photos late last summer.

Flowers of Hyacinth Bean point upward as late summer bean pods drape downward.

A tropical vine grown as a tender annual, Hyacinth Bean rapidly grows to around 12 feet tall, appearing full & established within mere weeks. Purple flowers resembling sweet peas bloom in mid-summer followed by deep purple seed pods hanging from thick purple tendrils. The leaves have deep purple veins, most easily seen from the underside.

Clusters of purple beans & a view of the pretty purple veining on the underside of a leaf.

At the end of the season, the purple seed pods dry & turn brown. They pods can then be collected & the seeds saved for planting the following year.

Hyacinth Bean twines through a trellis covering a sunny wall.

Start seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last expected frost. Once all threat of frost is gone, plant the vines outdoors in full sun providing them with a climbing support. Keep the soil consistently moist until the young vines are established. Fertilize throughout the season, at least once a month.

Bamboo poles form a tepee covered in Hyacinth Bean vine making a shady playhouse for children at the Fullerton Arboretum in Fullerton, CA. Instructions are available HERE. photo: Sunset.com

Hyacinth Bean has become very popular with modern gardeners but is hardly ubiquitous... yet. You'll still have friends & neighbors asking what it is & where to find seeds. 

It's a wonderful old-fashioned addition to the garden. Beside being easy-to-grow & a hardworking shade provider, it comes with a bit of interesting history. It was first introduced in Europe in the 1700s & was in American nurseries by the early 1800s. In 1812, Thomas Jefferson recorded planting "Arbor beans, white, scarlet, crimson, purple..." at his home, Monticello, and though he doesn't specify this species, gardeners at Monticello say that by 1804 Hyacinth Bean was available through Jefferson's favorite nurseryman, Bernard McMahon, & they believe that the "purple" bean Jefferson refers to may have been the Hyacinth Bean vine (var. Dolichos Lablab, now renamed Lablab Purpureus). Today, Hyacinth Bean vine is grown in the Monticello kitchen garden. The beans are said to be edible when young, but poisonous as they age. I choose to avoid potential trouble in that department & grow them strictly as ornamentals.

Hyacinth Bean vine seedlings growing in my kitchen. 

Confident that my luck will be better than last year, little Hyacinth Bean vines are once again growing near my sunny kitchen windows, just waiting patiently for spring.

Online, Hyacinth Bean seeds can be found here (Amazon), and here from The Shop at Monticello. Seeds are also found at many garden local centers.


All photos by me, except otherwise noted.