Use Vintage Technique To Grow More Fruit in Less Space

Reader Contribution by Brian Kaller
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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.

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.

With the tree’s natural growth concentrated into only two dimensions, it creates many more spurs looking for a chance to spread, creating more flowers and fruit than their conventional counterparts, and earlier in the trees’ life. The fruit can be picked casually while standing or sitting, with no need for the ladders or devices needed to pick many other fruit trees, and no risk of injury.Growing a tree against a south-facing wall has another advantage; not only does the tree receive maximum light and heat, but the thermal mass of the wall absorbs the heat like the trombe wall of a house, and provides shelter from the wind. In this way trees get a longer growing season, and can grow in cooler climates than they would ordinarily tolerate. One British kitchen garden, I’m told, even created an outdoor chimney that ran the length of the wall – perhaps the longest chimney in the world – that existed for no reason other than to heat the espalier trees.

Apples seem the most common espalier tree, with pears coming in second – many varieties of each can be used, some more easily than others. In other climates I am told peaches, lemons, oranges, tangerines, figs, nectarines and plums can be trained. We could not have grown those in northern Europe, of course, but we might be able to use the many fruits our modern supermarket economy have left behind — damsons, medlar and quince, among others. I have never heard whether nuts could be grown this way, but I’d like to find out.

Espalier trees can be grafted like other fruit, so that a single tree could grow multiple varieties on its branches. I know of no upper limit to how far an espalier can be stretched, nor of how many grafts a single tree can take; the BBC reports that gardener Paul Barnett in West Sussex, UK grows 250 varieties of apple on a single – admittedly non-espalier — tree.

Reviving this old technique would transform the stark suburbs; a tree grown against the outer wall of a house – or shed, barn, stable or coop — would offer shade, cut air-conditioning bills, shelter the wall from the rain, and transform it into something that produces food. Espalier compresses food production into two dimensions, leaving precious lawn space available for other uses. You could border your garden with an espalier fence or you could turn an existing fence into something beautiful and useful, and give future generations easy pickings.

Photos by the author.