Use Vintage Technique To Grow More Fruit in Less Space


| 2/10/2014 10:37:00 AM


Tags: fruit trees, orchard, Brian Kaller, Ireland,

My daughter by an old espalier tree

All across Ireland, sometimes crumbling and overgrown, lie the kitchen gardens that once served vast estates and armies of workmen. The phrase “kitchen gardens,” which sounds like it might describe a row of window-box herbs, doesn’t really do justice to the complex infrastructure of such places – a landscape of stone walls and chimneys, glass and tile, all engineered with precision and foresight. A Victorian-era kitchen garden is a masterpiece of sustainable technology, one that allowed people to multiply food production many times over, grow subtropical food in our wet and cold country, and fed legions from a limited patch of ground – all without electricity, fossil fuels or modern materials.

These Victorian gardens, however, depended on the constant care of master gardeners who kept alive techniques, patiently developed over centuries that have been mostly abandoned in our hurried age. Take, for example, a 200-year-old walled garden we visited last year, whose paths were bounded by what appeared to be wooden fences covered in leafy vines. One closer inspection, they were not fences or vines, but apple trees.They had stood for perhaps a century in unnaturally geometric form, now-gnarled branches curving outward from vertical trunks. From them smaller branches shot upward, creating immense candelabras several metres across. Even with some branches bent downwards with age and accident, they retained a striking symmetry – and they were laden with then-tiny apples. Near them, we could see saplings perhaps ten years old, stretched and trained along posts and wires, and already taking on their adult shapes.Old espalier tree in Ireland

The pear trees nearby, splayed against a far wall probably older than the American Revolution, held a different but equally improbable shape. Instead of a candelabra the long-dead gardener had trained its trunk to grow diagonally against the wall, and pruned and shaped its branches to radiate along it like bicycle spokes.

Fruit trees make a great investment in the future, yet they take up more space to normally spread than most of us own, and more years to mature than most of us have left. Victorian master gardeners, though, developed these shapes to cultivate fruit in such narrow places – and to yield more fruit, more quickly, and with a longer growing season.

Espalier, as it’s called, allows a gardener to grow a dwarf fruit tree along a wall or fence, binding it for support, and bending the branches to follow certain lines, as Japanese artists do with bonsai trees. Most gardeners started espaliers with a “maiden,” a one-year-old sapling that had not yet forked, and tied it to a staff of wood to keep it straight. Then they tied the desired branches to the fence or wall as they emerged, bending and pruning aggressively as the tree grew.




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