How to Espalier Apple Trees

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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.
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Six basic espalier styles

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.

Apples have chilling requirements of 200 to 1,700 hours at
a temperature of 32°F to 45°F. If you live in a
southern state, however, there are apple varieties
available with low winter-chill requirements. There are
also varieties with summer heat resistance (See “Popular
Varieties” on page 50).

Your choice may also depend on the kind of symmetrical
design you’d like your tree to have. While there are many
variations, the six basic forms of espalier are “multi-tier
cordon,” with its rows of branches growing horizontally;
“candelabra,” with its vertical rows of branches growing
off a single horizontal; “palmette verrier” with its
U-shaped branching pattern; “fan;” with a radiating
branching pattern; “informal,” that are more naturally
shaped; and “Belgian fence,” several Vshaped espaliers
woven together.

The traditional “formal” shapes generally require more
attention than the “informal” ones, which grow in shapes
that naturally follow the tree’s growing pattern.
Basically, the different styles offer design flexibility.
Of the formal styles, for instance, the multi-tiered
horizontal cordon takes the longest to train, but, once
established, lends itself well as a garden-bed divider. A
single cordon, grown vertically, horizontally, or even at
an angle, is the simplest espalier style and also works
well as a divider.

The palmette verrier design, with its horizontally growing
branches turning vertical at the ends, or the vertical form
of candelabra, are great if you want to plant several trees
against a structure without having them grow into one
another. The horizontal cordon shape would be an easy match
for a McIntosh’s branches, which naturally grow
horizontally. A Newtown pippin would be great for a fan
shape because of its natural upright branching pattern.

“It’s not imperative to make such matches between the
design and tree–it just makes training them that much
easier,” says Hooper. “Pick what you like and what’s
suitable for your climate, and simply realize that it’s
going to take some time to mature.”

Four Steps to Growing an
Espaliered Apple Tree

THE ONE-YEARWHIP: Once you’ve decided on the type of
fruit you want based on your climate and the design you
favor, select and purchase the youngest tree possible. Look
for a one-year “whip,” or relatively unbranched tree,
growing from dwarf or semi-dwarf bare-root stock. If space
is very much at a premium, use dwarf root stock; if you
want a vigorous growing tree, use semi-dwarf. Buy them bare
root during the dormant season–which, depending on
where you live, can be anywhere from October to late April.
Ideally, the earlier you can get a tree planted in the
dormant season, the better the roots establish themselves.

Next, prune the whip way back (before or after planting) so
it’s only 18″ to 24″ tall. “The trees look like pathetic
sticks,” says Hooper, “but it’s the only way to encourage
the growth of lower lateral branches.” Nutrients would flow
to the top branches if you didn’t cut back the leader and
allow an even flow of nutrients throughout the plant. “With
espalier, the whole point is to keep the lower branches
fruitful and vigorous so that the fruit is strictly within
reach of the ground:’ As the tree matures, pruning and
maintenance is a snap, which is why it’s often favored by
elderly gardeners or people with disabilities.

PLANTING: You’ll treat your
bare-root espalier no differently than any other bare root
when it comes to planting. Of course, you must give thought
to your climate and the best exposure. Apple trees need
approximately six hours of daily sunlight (southern or
western exposure is best). If your summers are extremely
hot, espaliered apple trees may need the shade and cooler
temperatures of an east wall or fence.

Deciding what surface to grow your espalier tree against
may be as simple as using what you’ve got. Chain-link
fences work great, as do wood fences, the walls of your
home, and trellises. You can also create your own
supportive structure with wire stretched between pipes or
wood posts treated with a preservative. Fruit trees trained
on post and wire fences will do best if they run from north
to south, allowing the western sun to penetrate.

If a trellis is not used, the tree will need to be trained
onto a supportive structure of wires. If your espalier is
freestanding, use galvanized 12- to 14-gauge wire stretched
between 4′ x 4′ posts. The horizontal bars of the trellis
or the horizontal wires will be spaced anywhere from 15″ to
18″ apart. If you’d like to emphasize a more skeletal look
for your tree, set the wires closer to 18″ apart. Wires
will also be used against a fence or wall, threaded through
eye screws.

When planting your tree, allow at least 8″ of space between
it and a wall or fence to ensure adequate air flow. This
also gives the trunk room to grow. Keep in mind that a tree
that fills a 4′ x 4′ trellis will ultimately fill an 8′ x
8′ space. Space your apple trees 6′ to 8′ apart. Of course,
if your apple variety is not a self-pollinator, you will
most likely need to plant more than one of a different
variety unless there are other varieties in your immediate
neighborhood.

TRAINING: Right from the start, keep the tree tied
loosely to the trellis or wires, using plastic ties or
plain cord. This enables you to train those branches to
grow in the form you want. Now and then, check that the
ties are not “choking” the branches. As the tree’s lateral
branches begin to grow, you’ll simply give them some
guidance.

After the first growing season, when you’ve gotten about
10″ to 12″ of growth on a branch, begin pruning certain
branches while allowing others to grow, depending on your
design. For most styles, with the exception of the fan and
Belgian fence, cut back the young branches leaving only the
best three that have grown 4″ to 6″ from the whip. Then
bend and train these shoots along the first wire 4″ to 6″.
[Note: Specific training techniques for the varying styles
are outlined in Hedges, Screens, and Espaliers (HP
Books, 1983)].

As the tree begins to grow, your primary job is to prune
unwanted branches as often as necessary to help develop the
basic structure. You’ll get used to repeating pruning steps
each season and cutting off unwanted lateral branches that
will try to grow in a way that does not mesh with your
intended design. Every week or so, grab your pruning sheers
and head for your espaliered tree.

Again, although your apple tree may bear fruit the first
summer, you should not let it mature until the tree’s third
growing season. Snip off young fruit when it grows to about
cherry size. Most of the tree’s first and second years of
growth and vigor need to be focused into root, branch, and
leaf production to get it completely established. “It’s
hard not to let fruit mature, but it pays tremendous
dividends down the road in the third season,” says Hooper.

Even into the third season and thereafter, you’ll have to
be strict about how much fruit you allow to grow. After the
petals fall, the fruit will form in clusters and, if you
leave all this fruit on, you’ll inevitably reap lots of
small fruit instead of fewer nice-size ones. “People are
shy about thinning the fruit on their trees,” he says, “but
you don’t want mature fruit rubbing against each other.”

MAINTENANCE: Hooper grows all of
his fruit trees organically. “A lot of what I do is just
look at the plants carefully,” he says. “The espalier lends
itself perfectly to this because it’s more opened up;
you’re more likely to find things on it.” Hooper uses a
petroleum-based dormant spray during the winter. In the
spring, Safer’s insecticidal soap kills aphids and various
other pests.

Be conservative with fertilizer; it is possible to
overfeed. Use fish emulsion, blood meal, or blood and bone
mix, and a good top dressing around the base of the tree to
get it off to a good start. Use a top dressing of
fertilizer at the end of your winter season. “You want that
nutrient to penetrate the soil by the time the tree comes
out of its dormant season in need of a good rush of
nutrients,” says Hooper. Later, only feed the tree if it
shows obvious signs of deficiency, such as yellowing
leaves. In the first season, water regularly as you would
any fruit tree, twice a week or more in hot weather.
Semi-dwarf and dwarf roots will continue to need regular
deep watering.

If you don’t want to wait for your espalier tree to become
mature enough for you to harvest fruit or you want the
artistic design of the branches now, there is a solution.
You can purchase or mail-order espalier trees that have
been trained and already have their basic shape. Depending
on what the espalier nursery has in stock, almost any apple
variety can be shipped during the dormant, bare-root
season. You can order a tree that has been trained from one
season to six or seven, if you like. Of course, for the
die-hard do-it-yourselfers, the very young whips are
available as well.

Whether you’ve raised it from a young whip or not, your
espaliered fruit tree will be at its prime at five years of
age and will offer you the finest of fruits for the
following 25 years. In 20 years, that’s a ton of fresh
apple pies.

The Six Basic Espalier Styles

Cordon: Most traditional form of espalier.
Grows horizontally for a distance, lending itself well as a
garden-bed divider. Can be a single cordon, also known as
“rope,” or a multicordon, generally with three tiers of
branches. The multicordon takes two to three years to reach
definition. May take longer on the East Coast because of
shorter growing seasons.

Palmetto Verrier: Vertical branching adds
nice definition between trees planted against a wall or
fence. Horizontally trained branches are gradually trained
into upright positions. Design can take up to three years
to reach definition. Fan: Suitable for areas requiring
vertical coverage; will best cover a square space. Style
defines quickly; can have clear definition within one year.
Branches angled at 45° can be raised or lowered for
greatest fruit yield.

Informal: Tree is allowed to take on a
more natural shape; requires simple pruning to keep on a
two-dimensional plane. Somewhat easier to train-simply
balance the tree’s aesthetic symmetry as the branches begin
to grow.

Belgian fence: Lattice effect offers one
of the most formal looking styles. Requires three trees or
more to create overlapping Vs and two modified Vs to create
finished ends. Within one year, the beginning design of
overlapping Vs is well outlined.

Candelabra: Also known as “Brooklyn
Botanical.” Several vertical branches stem off one
horizontal base. Fairly easy to train and maintain.

Popular Varieties of Apple & Their Requirements

McIntosh: Most adaptable to any espalier
design; very hardy variety does well in cold climates yet
prefers only 600 hours of winter chill; fruits ripen late
in the mid-season. Can be self-pollinating, but will be more
fruitful if pollinated by different apple variety.

Dorsett Golden: Makes an especially nice
oblique design such as a fan; prefers only 400 hours of
winter chill; fruit ripens early: self-pollinating.

Anna: Lends itself well to any espalier
design; prefers only 400 hours of winter chill; fruit
ripens early; requires a pollinator of a different apple
variety.

Spitzenberg: Old-fashioned variety; makes
very nice palmette verriers, horizontal cordons, and fans.
Adaptable to many areas; hardy in cold winter locations
despite its low winter chill requirement of 600 hours.
Stiffer branches work well as cordon; avoid bending
vertically in U-shape or candelabra. Prefers 600 hours or
less of winter chill; has good summer heat resistance.
Fruit ripens late in season; self pollinating.

Newtown Pippin: Stiffer branches work well
as cordon; avoid bending vertically in U-shape or
candelabra; prefers 600 hours or less of winter chill; has
good summer-heat resistance: fruit ripens late in season;
self-pollinating.

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