Espalier: Living Works of Art

You don’t have to be a master gardener to appreciate—and enjoy—the ancient craft of espalier.

It’s a centuries-old horticultural technique with roots as far back as ancient Egypt. There, through faded tomb paintings of fig trees planted and flattened against sun-drenched stone walls, evidence suggests that espalier (ess-PAL’-yay) had a place in the garden.

Later refined by French monks in the late 1600s, this art of pruning and training trees and deciduous shrubs into stylized, flat patterns is as relevant to today’s green thumbs as it was back then. That’s because espalier offers a number of rewards that 21st-century gardeners can reap.

No one understands the benefits— and beauty —of espalier more than Peter Thevenot, owner of River Road Farms in Decatur, Tennessee. He tends to approximately 3,200 of these living works of art at all times. Thevenot’s intense passion for espalier began some 16 years ago after a visit to the vegetable gardens at the historic Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.

“Aside from the beauty and character espalier brings to any garden, these magnificent pieces of living architecture are part of our country’s gardening history and perhaps America’s best-kept secret,” Thevenot says.

“They boast practicality as well. Their architecture lends structure to the garden, and can define and separate outdoor rooms. Use them to accent bare walls or provide privacy as living screens.

“They are also ideal for small spaces because unlike a standard-size fruit tree, you can place an espalier plant in a 15-inch-wide garden bed. So someone living in a condominium or tending a rooftop garden can essentially enjoy a fruit orchard that’s no bigger than 4 feet tall by 5 feet wide.”

And who knew the ancient Egyptians were so “green”? After all, espalier plants require less chemical intervention than their larger counterparts. “Everything is in arms reach. If you need to use a pesticide, it’s just a matter of getting out a small spray bottle, as opposed to the harsher treatment a full-size specimen requires.”
So how exactly does espalier work? Here’s the short version: The pruning of unwanted branches directs energy away from from the plant’s vertical growth so it can focus on producing “spurs” or side shoots from the trunk.

“When you start cutting, the tree feels threatened, and it goes into survival mode,” Thevenot says. “Since its primary purpose in life is to reproduce, it reacts by producing more fruit and flower spurs per square inch available to it.”

No doubt this tough-love approach to pruning can be intimidating to some gardeners. “Get over your fear of cutting,” suggests Thevenot. “You’re not going to hurt the plant. Most anytime you cut a plant back, it encourages growth. It’s amazing how tolerant plants are to shearing or having their branches bent. At the nursery, for example, we start out with a young apple tree that’s no bigger around than your ring finger. The first thing we do is cut it back to 18 inches tall.”

Thevenot also encourages novice gardeners to become familiar with other living architecture found in garden design, including topiary and pleached plants. “Doing so creates awareness for something other than a flat of pansies or row of boxwood.”

Apple trees (Malus) are the most popular plants to espalier (Thevenot suggests Liberty, Gala, Arkansas Black, and Red Delicious cultivars), however; most any tree or large woody shrub is suitable for training. From fruit-producing fig (Ficus carica) and pear trees (Pyrus) to familiar, flower-laden ornamentals, such as crabapples (try Donald Wyman or snowdrift), magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora), jasmine (Jasminum), viburnum, rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), and weigela (Weigela florida), the possibilities are only as limited as your imagination.

Many of these plants also provide four-season appeal. Take the crabapple, for example: In spring, it boasts beautiful boughs of white or pink blossoms before setting autumn ablaze with berry clusters and fantastic fall foliage. Even in winter, espalier plants have something to offer a stark landscape. “Espalier trees are most beautiful to me in winter. That’s the only time of the year when you can see their true form. The bare branches catch the snow and provide perches for winter birds,” says Thevenot, who strings Christmas lights along a candelabra form embellishing the entryway of his house. “My grandkids think it’s the neatest thing.”

Once you select a plant to espalier, choose a suitable location and pattern. A trellis, wood (or even chain-link) fence, or masonry wall all offer adequate support. You can also fashion espalier into freestanding forms such as privacy fences or domes. Equally as important to consider are your plant’s growing requirements —sun, soil type, drainage.

Espalier forms are as versatile as the plants you can choose to manipulate. Here are a few of the most popular patterns:

No matter what pattern or plant you select, the espalier experience is a deep one. “Gardening’s ultimate goal is to bring a sense of happiness and oneness with the earth,” shares Thevenot. “Because you have absolute control over an espalier’s architecture, you enjoy a personal relationship with it that’s unlike any other in the garden.”

Let’s get growing

Thevenot suggest that budding enthusiasts begin with the simplest for formal designs, the horizontal cordon

Step 1 Select a planting site, keeping in mind your plant’s specific growing requirements. Choose a location that offers support, such as a wall, fence, or trellis.

Step 2 Dig a hole for your plant that’s about 6 to 12 inches from the supporting wall or fence. This allows for proper air circulation and room for maintenance.

Step 3 Once established, shape the plant into the desired design by pruning unwanted lateral growth and bending young branches into horizontal arms. Secure to a trellis using soft string or twist ties. (Check periodically to make sure they don’t strangle the plant as it grows.) If attaching to a masonry wall, secure with 14- to 16-gauge wire anchored by 6- to 8-inch-long eyebolts driven into the wall.

Step 4 Prune a few times a year to keep your espalier looking tidy. Stop pruning eight weeks before the first frost is exprected to avoid damaging new growth.