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!


  1. We have always talked of introducing espaliered fruit along one wall in our garden but it has yet to materialise. Oh Keri, how beautiful is Jeannette Whitson's Belgian Fence, I am totally smitten!

  2. Lovely examples, Keri. I had a number of espaliered pear trees when I lived in upstate NY. It was difficult to beat the raccoons to the ripe fruit, but the trees were reminiscent of a renaissance painting. Sadly, I cannot grow them in Florida. I wonder if anyone has tried to espalier an orange tree?

    1. Hi Victoria,
      As Debra says, below, orange trees can be espaliered. Other citrus can be as well-- lemons, limes, kumquats. I have some photos of espaliered citrus that I'll show in the next post.

  3. I am so excited to follow along with your espalier posts, Keri! We just planted an apple espalier in out courtyard and it looks to be about the same age as your apple espaliers. Can't wait to compare notes. We are also starting a fig Belgian Fence espalier that is proving to be much harder to train than we expected. Can't wait to read more!!

  4. lovely lovely keri. i will never tire of espalier, anything. if victoria reads this orange trees can be espaliered. she should be able to find that in florida

  5. Beautiful Espalier trees Keri. I will continue to follow along here as we are in the midst of a new design project. I like the idea of using them as a boarder for privacy.

  6. I love them - so civilized and beautiful! A wonderful post for this gorgeous spring day. Good luck with your new beauties, Keri. Keep us posted. And here's to a great garden season. Cheers~

  7. Keri,
    I love this post. First of all, your trees look great where you placed them and I can only imagine how full they'll be by summer's end. Second, now I want a arbor of fruit trees...that image of Highgrove arbor is beautiful. I like the idea of training on wire and posts is appealing, but I don't have the room in my yard, so like you, I used my espalier rose to cover an otherwise boring and slight homely stucco wall. That was a great idea of Ms. Whitson creating a Belgian Fence, a term new to me.
    I'll look forward to Part II of Espalier.

  8. Dear Keri,

    Thank you for your very kind comment on my blog about my garden! I loved this post on espalier trees, and yours look lovely against that background. We too have a number of trees that we are training….labour intensive as you say, but so worth it as they look beautiful!

    Happy Gardening,

    Sophia x

  9. Dear, dear Keri! HELLO! I am just getting myself settled in this morning; I am home sick from work and I saw your comment onn my post. Oh my friend, thank you so much for your care! I will continue to blog and visit consistently. I just am pulling back from posting frequently because I have too much on my plate. I have work and now I am writing for a magazine! That will be a wonderful experience that I've always wanted but I simply cannot do everything. However, like I said, I am going to continue to visit you and all my favorite blogs but just posting once a month.

    NOW FOR THE IMPORTANT STUFF! I love espaliers, and here in our city, there is a gorgeous, vintage white brick house with a PINK espalier crabapple flanking the front entrance. Oh the glory of visiting that street in spring.Our spring is barely starting with melted snow exposing the debris of winter, so we have a few weeks to catch up. But when spring comes, it will be glorious.

    I wish you much luck on your espalier...they are looking GOOD so far! And I will be back to see your progress my friend. LOVE, Anita

  10. Thank you so much for hoping on back my dear. I am resting and trying to put something down to keep my stomach settled! BISOUS, Anita

  11. Dear Keri, This post is perfectly timed for me. I have always loved espaliered trees and dreamt of trying them myself. I have the perfect spot in the sorely neglected garden of our little cottage in RI - this is the inspiration I needed!

  12. Hi lovely Keri, Thank you for your very kind comment on my blog. I have missed you too!
    I have so enjoyed re-reading your posts and admiring your photos and images.
    I particularly like the garden direction.
    Hope all well with you and yours, and you have a lovely day,

  13. Those gardens are stunning. I adore Espaliers and have several… Yours are looking great and i'm sure that you will have success with them. Enjoy your day….

  14. I adore espalliered fruit trees. If it weren't for the darn deer at both of my homes I would love tohave some! Great post!

  15. I love espaliered trees...those gardens are so beautiful!

  16. Thank you so much for including my Belgian fence! Your beautiful article makes me want to get in the garden!

    1. Jeannette,
      It is my pleasure! Thank you for visiting my blog!

  17. Precious friend, how lovely to see your comment this morning! Yes, pulling back a bit from worries is what I hope to do soon. I am better, but I go in for an MRI next week, and all I hope is for normal readings. But to contemplate the garden, the water on the lake, and to share a laugh with a friend, colleague or student is all I want. Many thanks for coming to visit and ENJOY all that you have. Anita

  18. blogs that provide information and give what I do not know,, thanks admin

  19. So beautiful Keri. I wish you could come do my garden ahahaha! I don't even know where to start! Clare x


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