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The Practical Beauty of Espaliers

Use an age-old technique to grow living sculptures.

By Lee Reich

The Practical Beauty of Espaliers
The disciplined branches on this tree have been trained into one of the oldest and most traditional configurations for espaliers, the horizontal palmette. Photo Courtesy of Ken Druse

Mention plants that grow on a wall and you probably think of vines, but in northern Europe there has been a long tradition of training trees to grow flat in orderly, ornamental, architectural shapes known as espaliers. Perfected hundreds of years ago as a way to grow trees in limited space, espaliers (pronounced es-pal-YAYz) work with many different types of ornamental trees, but the technique classically has been used on apple and pear trees. The intricate shapes that espaliers take can add plenty of well-dressed charm to an old-house garden.

All espaliers need some form of structural support, which can be a fence, trellis, or the wall of a house or garage. By spreading branches out over a wide, flat area, espaliers optimize exposure to sunlight. To foster air circulation around espaliers grown on a wall, train their branches onto wires and stakes held a foot or so away from the support surface. Using walls as structural support has other benefits, too. It helps shelter plants from wind and allows them to absorb some of the structure's heat, nurturing growth and increasing the variety of plants that can prosper in cold climates.

A Low-Maintenance Approach
Despite their orderly appearance, espaliers are charming because they show that someone is keeping an eye on them, visiting often to care for their well-pruned branches. When those branches bear fruit, you have a plant offering superb flavor as well as beauty. That flavor results from an espalier's leaves bathing freely in the sun and air, as well as the favorable balance of fruit and leaves. Because photosynthesis happens in the leaves, this balance ensures that each fruit gets plenty of sugars.

In the spring, apple or pear espaliers in Europe are thoroughly laden with flowers that later become fruit. Except for northern, coastal regions, much of North America's climate and daylengths don't favor extravagant fruit production. The lavish attention that espaliers require may be an additional drawback in today's fast-paced world, because apple and pear espaliers need frequent pruning-once in winter and four or more times throughout the summer, usually accompanied by carefully considered decisions about what and how much to prune.

One fruit plant, however, offers a less labor-intensive approach to espaliers and grows just about everywhere: the red currant. Ornamental, tasty, and popular in this country a century ago, red currants have been grown across northern Europe for 600 years, but their primary advantage is that they require straightforward pruning only twice a year. The crowning touch is their bright red fruit, which dangle from branches like translucent jewels. Equally easy to grow are gooseberries, which are close relatives of red currants and have many of the same growing and fruiting habits.

Red currant espaliers decorate the fence around my vegetable garden. Each plant is trained to grow in the shape of a simple T with a single, upright, bare trunk capped by two fruiting arms splayed out in opposite directions. If your taste runs to more complex designs, red currant espaliers acquiesce just as readily to form the ornate U's, double U's, fans, and candelabras that were traditionally applied to apple or pear trees.

Putting Plant Biology to Work
Knowing a little about plant biology also helps with cultivating espaliers. A plant's uppermost shoots tend to grow the strongest, a phenomenon known as apical dominance, which is the result of plant hormones produced in the growing tips of upright stems and at the high points of arching stems. Those hormones suppress the growth of lower shoots. As a result, changing a stem's orientation can influence how strongly various parts of that stem will grow.

Another concept worth keeping in mind is the inverse relationship between stem fruitfulness and stem vigor. The more vertically oriented the stem is, the stronger it grows and the less fruitful it will be, especially in the upper portions. Horizontal stems tend to be weaker and more fruitful, with more branches along their length. Both of these plant behaviors can be put to use when training and maintaining an espalier. For example, to develop a healthy trunk on my red currant, I identified the strongest shoot on the plant, tied it to the fence to keep it upright and vigorous, and removed all other shoots. Anytime that you need side branches on a stem, you can put apical dominance to work by merely pinching off or cutting back the tip of the main stem. Once the trunk-to-be of my red currant grew just above the top of the 3'-high fence, it was time to develop its permanent side arms, so I cut the stem back to the fence's height. This cut removed apical dominance along the stem. I then selected two shoots on the upper portion of the trunk to become permanent arms, training them to grow along the fence in opposite directions, and removing all other stems that appeared.

To keep these developing arms thriving, I again put apical dominance to work, leaving their ends free as I tied the portions closest to the trunk down in a horizontal position. The free ends did what they were naturally inclined to do-that is, turn upwards-and that upward orientation maintained strong growth from their ends. As the shoots lengthened, I kept tying the older portions down horizontally.

I began pruning for maintenance and fruiting even as the arms were still developing. Because of their horizontal orientation, the arms exhibit little apical dominance, and side shoots grow freely along them. This growth is good, because it's from the arms that the fruit hangs. I couldn't let those side shoots grow too long, however, or they would obscure the espalier's crisp T shape.

You need just two simple pruning cuts to keep the form neat while encouraging abundant fruit production. Make the first cut in summer as the first berries show the slightest hint of a change in color. This cut entails nothing more than shortening every side shoot growing off the arms to about 5 in length. The second set of annual cuts takes place while the plant is dormant and leafless, preferably sometime between midwinter and when growth begins in the spring. In this cut, I shorten all those 5-long side shoots once again, this time cutting them back to about 1. Occasion-ally, the plant will sprout new shoots either at ground level or along the trunk. I remove these sprouts whenever I notice them.

That's all the pruning maintenance a red currant espalier requires. I spend less than five minutes per plant at each session. The result is an espalier that is as attractive as it is fruitful, a plant that is civilized, homey, and well trained. My espaliers hang on to their berried treasures for weeks. The only problem I have is picking the fruit-I hate to do so and ruin their lovely appearance.

Lee Reich writes about espaliers and other aspects of pruning in The Pruning Book (Taunton Press, 1997).

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