Sculpting Nature's Canvas in Your Garden

The art of espalier (es-pal-yay) is when a tree or shrub is grown in a single plane, flat against some sort of structure.

This can either be a free-standing trellis, a wall, or fence, with a few lateral branches pruned into an orderly form. It can take up to 10 years to fully train a tree into the desired shape and form, but all that pruning and effort will be worth it in the end.

Why would anyone go through so much effort just to make a funky tree design? There are several benefits to espalier outside of their aesthetic pleasure:

  1. The extensive, regular pruning reduces the overall weight and stress on the branches and the tree as a whole so there is less breakage, better airflow, fewer pest problems, and a higher level of fruit production. All of this means espalier trees tend to live much longer than normal trees
  2. By taking up such a small amount of space, espalier allows people with a limited amount of growing space to grow their own fruit. This includes being able to grow a fruit tree effectively in a container.
  3. Harvesting the fruit is much easier, and makes fruit cultivation accessible to individuals with reduced mobility.
  4. When planted against a wall, you can take advantage of a micro climate, and the tree receives added protection from late season frosts.

I don’t know about you, but this handful of reasons is enough for me to want to espalier everything now! So, how do you get started? 

Espalier excitement

Espalier fruit tree | Vego Garden
Espalier fruit tree

Espalier fruit tree growing against a brick wall

In order to maintain the shape of your espalier design, you need some sort of guide to attach the branches to. This guide can be an existing fence, a wall, or a set of turnbuckle guide wires you set up specifically for your espalier.

The spacing between each level should be between 18-24 inches, and using a turnbuckle will allow you to tighten the wires as they slacken over time from the increased weight of the branches.

There are tons of resources online that will go over the nitty gritty of how to set up a trellis and all the different shapes you can train your espalier into.

There are some key things to keep in mind though when selecting your planting location and tree, aside from the typical ones like sunlight and drainage.

If planting next to your home to fill in a blank space along a wall, and your house uses septic, know where your drainage field is! This is especially important if you want to utilize an edible tree for your espalier project since it is not safe to consume food grown in improperly processed sewage. 

The second consideration is the type of rootstock your tree has. The best rootstock for espalier are dwarf varieties. This becomes especially important when planting next to your house because a non-dwarf rootstock can actually damage the foundation of your home, as well as negatively impact nearby pipes.

The average root spread on a dwarf variety is 1-2 square meters versus 10-12 square meters for a normal tree. That’s a pretty big difference! Additionally, dwarf roots effectively feed at 1-2 feet deep whereas normal tree roots probe 2-3 feet deep which also means they are less likely to negatively impact pipes and the like under your home. 

Another reason why dwarf rootstock is beneficial for espalier even if you do not plan to plant the tree next to your home is the inherent height control. The average height of a fruit tree is 20-30 feet whereas the average height for a fruit tree grown on dwarf rootstock is about 10 feet. That means you will have far less work keeping the espalier in shape than if you used a regular rootstock. 

Types of trees for espalier

As with any perennial you plant, it is important to be aware of your growing zone.

This is worth double checking since the USDA just released an updated zone map in 2023 with many border zones officially being pushed into the hotter zone (here in the mountains of Western North Carolina we went from zone 6b to officially being in 7a).

Your growing zone will play an even more important role when selecting fruit trees. Many fruit trees require a certain number of chill hours in order to actually bear any fruit. Many of the fruit trees you see at big box stores in the spring are actually not suitable for your growing zone so do your homework before bringing one home!

Another consideration for selecting your fruit tree is whether or not it requires a pollinating companion. If you are planning to only plant a single espalier apple tree for example, make sure that it is self-fertile (does not need another apple tree for cross-pollination), has a number of chill hours appropriate for your growing zone, and is on dwarf root-stock.

If you plan to espalier multiple apple trees, make sure they are compatible pollination partners since apples bloom at different parts of the season and may not actually cross pollinate. It would be incredibly disappointing to spend years training your espalier to only discover that it never sets fruit!

Final thoughts

Espalier apple tree | Vego Garden
Espalier apple tree

The most common fruit trees utilized for espalier are apples and pear trees.

This is because specific varieties bear fruit on spurs, small side shoots, which are conducive to the overall espalier shape. Be careful though since there are still varieties of apples and pears that are tip-bearing which will not work well with espalier.

Make sure to look up the variety you are interested in and double check to see if it’s spur bearing or otherwise. You don’t have to limit yourself to just fruit trees though, nearly any kind of compact tree or tree grafted to dwarf root-stock can be espaliered. 






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