You can grow fruit and nut trees in surprisingly small areas using a method called espalier.
Espaliered trees are trained to grow in a two dimensional form, usually along a fence or wall, on a trellis, or between support wires.
We get the word espalier from the Italian word spalliera, which means ‘something to rest your shoulder against.’ This was back when the word referred to the structural framework used to support the initial growth of the tree. Now, we say that a tree trained in this way has been espaliered.
Put simply, a tree is espaliered by cutting it back to a specific height, usually 18 inches, and then retaining only two or three buds. As these buds grow out into branches, they are trained along a trellis, fence, or support wires, while still flexible. As these branches mature, they become rigid. Buds on these branches are selected for the next level of growth and all other buds are rubbed off. Over time, a simple or complex structure can emerge that takes up very little space, but that can produce a surprising amount of food.
Benefits of espalier tree training
Tree training, in general, provides several benefits to the trees and to homeowners. Dead, diseased, and crossed branches are removed, the tree is opened up for better air circulation and sun exposure, and the likelihood of broken branches due to an overly heavy crop is reduced with proper tree care. Espalier training takes it a step further by controlling the size and location of where a fruit or nut tree can be grown successfully.
A mature standard sized fruit tree can get quite large. Standard apple trees are 30’ across and 30’ tall, semi-dwarfs reach 20’ high and 20’ across, and even dwarf trees will grow to 15’ tall and 15’ wide unless they are pruned for size. Many homeowners simply do not have that kind of space available. This is where espalier training is particularly useful. In addition to keeping trees healthy, espaliered trees offer additional benefits:
How to espalier a tree
The first step in espaliering a young tree, shrub, or woody vine, is to transplant it 6 to 12 inches from a wall, fence, or trellis. This spacing is important for air flow and pest control. You can then install eye bolts into masonry joints, galvanized eye screws into a wooden fence, or build a trellis to support and train your tree. Starting while the tree is small, prune it to create a central stem (trunk). As branches emerge, only paired horizontal branches are retained. All other new buds are pruned away or rubbed off. These paired branches are trained to grow along the same horizontal plane, normally along an support wire or wooden framework. Grapes have been grown in this way for thousands of years.
There are several variations on the espalier theme:
Which trees can be espaliered?
There are many different edible trees, shrubs, and woody vines that be trained into an espalier. These plants include almond, apple, Asian pears, crabapple, citrus, fig, loquat, nectarine, olive, peach, pear, and plum. Many different ornamental plants, such as yew, privet, magnolia, winter jasmine, and camellia can also be espaliered.
Espaliered trees can be used as hedges, walls, or yard art. With skill and patience, free-standing espaliered trees can create a big impact.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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