How to Espalier Apple Trees

How to choose the right variety of apple, then train it into an espalier. The six basic styles of espalier are shown.

| October/November 1993


Most espaliered trees need approximately three years to attain the desired design and reach maturity. If you can stand the wait, you'll be rewarded with beautifully structured trees and bushels of fresh apples.


From midsummer through late fall, John Hooper harvests 600 pounds of apples a year from his garden. Yet he lives in a mild, often fog-shrouded coastal climate in northern California—not exactly opti mal fruit-growing weather. His orchard, consisting of 12 seven-year-old trees, is tucked away in the tight quarters of his backyard. How does he achieve such high production in such a compact space without a lot of fruit-inducing chill or summer sun? He practices the old art of espalier (es-PAL-yay)-training dwarf species to grow in flat, two-dimensional forms, usually against fences and walls. "I've counted 70 apples on just one of my espalier trees," boasts Hooper.

The technique was developed in the 16th century, out of the practical need for growing fruit in such marginal climates as northern France and southern England. The early French and English discovered that if they bent apple-tree branches horizontally, they could direct energy away from vigorous vertical growth and into producing spurs (those stubby lateral branches that eventually flower and produce fruit). In addition, by growing the tree flat against a wall or fence, they could create a favorable microclimate in which the wall radiated heat and provided shelter. As they do today, growers kept the trees dwarfed for ease of management.

"If you have a small garden but big ambitions, you can grow fruit without having one or two trees dominate the entire area," says Hooper, who, along with caring for his orchard, owns a nursery dedicated to espaliered fruit trees and ornamentals. Espalier trees produce more fruit per foot than do ordinary fruit trees-mature forms reap from 30 to 60 pounds of delicious-tasting fruit, from apples and pears to peaches and pomegranates.

Some growers simply enjoy the aesthetic value of espaliered trees, with their traditional symmetrical branch forms resembling fans and candelabras. These forms are created by snipping off unwanted branches and training others to move down toward the desired position. These unique forms make exquisite garden focal points: during the dormant season of winter, the unusual branching patterns are revealed; during the spring, apple trees become festooned with blossoms in varying shades of white and pink; during the summer, the trees go through a two- or three-week stage of dramatic blossoming. Also, because you can train them to grow against almost any supportive structure, espaliered trees are naturals as living shields to hide unattractive walls, fencing, or compost bins.

Along with pear trees, apple trees are the traditional espalier subject because their spurs live for years producing fruit. Espalier apple trees bear fruit at a young age and are versatile in nature, with their supple, easily trained new growth. However, you'll need to practice delayed gratification because most of these trees take approximately three years to mature and reach the desired design. For some growers, this is too large a drawback. But if you don't mind the wait, your patience and creativity will pay off in the long run, with mounds of McIntosh and pounds of Pippin displayed on beautiful, bountiful tree forms.

Espaliering Apple Trees

You'll want to consider which particular kinds of apples will be suitable for your climate. "Among the 5,000 apple trees grown worldwide, wherever you live, some variety will suit your climate," assures Hooper. "Plus there are no apple trees that are not amenable to espalier." In choosing the kind of apple tree to espalier, be aware of the extremes of your hot and cold climate. The chill factor is the period of cold needed by apples and other deciduous fruits to break their winter rest. This is an adaptive feature to prevent plants from breaking dormancy on warm winter days.

1/12/2008 7:25:34 AM

Thanks so much for your guidance. I am eager to try your method of using Safer insecticidal soap. I like the idea of having organic apples. I will have to try to extend the idea to my whole garden area.

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