Free-standing espaliered fruit trees in the kitchen garden of landscape designer, Bunny Guinness.
Photo by Robin Baker for Contemporary Designers' Own Gardens
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
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.
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.
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.
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 HERE. Photos by Simon Watson
Another view of Jeannette Whitson's espaliered pear "Belgian Fence".
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 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!