To cultivate market-fresh produce in a compact space, train your fruit trees to spread over a wire trellis
In this garden, taut wire strands provide support while displaying a fruit tree to its finest advantage. Image: Getty Images
Espalier is a traditional gardening technique used for training plants to grow against a wall or fence on a wire support, creating a living garden feature.
The practice was established centuries ago in Europe where it was used to extend the growing season of fruit trees in cold climates.
It was observed that the warmth retained in walls from the heat of the day gave the plant protection from the chill night air.
Freestanding trees can also be espaliered to a timber or wire frame without a wall behind them.
The technique involved in espalier consists of manipulating a tree or shrub into a two-dimensional shape by pruning and tying it until the plant grows to a desired size and form.
Mostly used as a space saver the many elaborate designs mean that espaliered plants can also double up as landscape art.
It is a great way of cultivating fruit in a small space, as the trees are easy to prune, thin, harvest and spray.
But it is not just for trees, as a variety of shrubs and vines can be espaliered for ornamental reasons.
Make a wire frame
To make a frame for espalier, secure 3mm braided wire to a wall or between timber posts, adding turnbuckles to tighten the wires as the plant grows.
FOR A TRELLIS set two timber posts at the mature width of the tree.
Attach screw eyes to the posts then thread the wire, securing the ends with wire rope grips.
Position the first wire 400mm above the ground then 350mm apart.
FOR A WALL build a trellis in front, leaving 300mm between the wires and the wall for good airflow and to stop the tree scraping the surface.
Pruning an espalier
An espaliered fruit tree can take up to five years to achieve multiple tiers and three years to fruit.
Remove the blossoms in spring during the first three years so the plant’s energy is going into growth.
If you choose to leave the blossoms and enjoy the spring display, you’ll have to wait longer for the tree to grow and produce.
The main pruning should be done in winter when the plant is dormant.
As the idea is to create flat growth, any branches that stick out or don’t fit the desired shape should be pruned as they appear.
Choose a fruit tree
For homegrown success, select one of these popular varieties to espalier.
APPLE should be planted in late spring or autumn and pruned in early spring after harvesting.
OLIVE is planted in late winter to early spring and harvested in early autumn. Wait until the fruit turns purple if you wish to preserve it.
LEMON goes in the ground in spring and should be fertilised then and in early autumn. Lemon trees can crop almost all year round.
PEAR is best planted in late autumn or early spring and pruned in winter after an autumn harvest.
FIG is an early spring planter with a summer harvest. A first crop, called breba, appears in spring but is of lesser quality and is usually pruned off to improve the summer crop.
ALMOND should be planted in late autumn and is also harvested at that time of year. Prune in summer until the tree is established then change
to pruning in winter.
For homegrown success, select one of these popular varieties to espalier. Image: Getty Images
Popular espalier patterns
Choose a spot in the garden that gets enough sun for the plant to grow strongly, with plenty of room in the ground for the roots to spread out. Almost any plant can be espaliered but those with flexible lateral branches are the best. Select plants with a natural growth habit that will work with your chosen pattern.
FAN SHAPE has branches radiating from the centre in a V shape. The branches are left to grow then lowered and cut back for further training and to continue the V pattern.
SIMPLE HORIZONTAL has one vertical trunk with two lateral branches that grow in opposite directions. The central trunk spreads opposite laterals every 400 to 500mm.
BELGIAN FENCE looks like a lattice structure and is created by planting similar trained vines or trees in a line 600mm apart with their branches trained in opposite 45° angles.
How to train an espalier
Plant the tree in front of the wire fence or wall trellis, cutting and tying branches as they grow. TIP Remove unwanted side branches as they appear.
Step 1. Tie the branches
Tie the branches to the wire with soft ties, choosing two strong limbs that are young, outward facing and the same height as the wire. Cut back the main stem to a bud 50mm above the wire to support the next tier of branches.
Step 2. Tie the new growth
Tie the new growth next summer, selecting one bud pointing left and one pointing right below the cut made to the main stem at planting. As these shoots grow from the buds, tie them to the wire.
Step 3. Cut back growth
Cut back growth from the previous year to 10mm in late autumn when the tiers reach the top wire. In late summer, prune shoots from the tiers to three leaves from the basal cluster, and shoots from laterals to one leaf.