I’ve always lusted after one of those multi-grafted fruit trees, with compatible varieties chosen to cross-pollinate each other and produce several kinds of fruit on a single tree. However, my resident deer population is equally interested in feasting on such bounty so I chose not to create another exercise in frustration. However, I just planted a lovely little 3-way apple espalier, having found the perfect spot. Because my house is built into a hillside, the large deck is a good 15 feet above ground level. Last year, I had the end section caged off with goat pen wire to make a cat garden space where Sophie can ramble amid pet-safe plants without fear of coyotes, eagles, raccoons, or roaming dog packs.
A few weeks ago, I was at a nursery (of course), eyeing the espalier fruit trees longingly, when it occurred to me that I now have an ideal place for such a plant. The south-facing deck gets full sun, the cage wire offers support coupled with excellent air circulation, and the tender branches and fruit will be out of reach for critters. Yay! After much inner debate, I chose a handsome, sturdy looking 4-footer with paired branches of Akane, Honeycrisp, and Spartan apples.
When Four Hands Are Better
I happily filled a large tree pot with several bags of planting medium (I’m really impressed with the EB Stone organic soils and planting composts). I then tried to gently pull the tree from its fiber pot, but realized that the roots had grown into the fiber. It was impossible to free the plant from its fiber pot without putting too much stress on the tree or bashing into the sides or top of the cage. Dang. It was the independent gardener’s nightmare come to life: time to ask for help. Horrors!
Happily, I am wiser in my advancing maturity than in my youth, when I was too stiff necked to ask for a helping hand. A friend and I gently wrestled the tree out of its prison and into its new home without damage, tucking in some succulent Marshall strawberry plants around the trunk. I try to keep my heritage Marshalls well away from other strawberries to prevent other people (you know who you are) from eating them all. Now they’re locked into a cage and protected by a watch-cat, so I’m counting on getting most of them for myself this season. Unless Sophie eats them, which she might…
Pick Your Wall With Care
European garden books often feature lovely old walls covered with vines or tidily trained fruit trees, laden with ripening fruit. In this country, stone or brick walls are less common and it’s best to remember that constant contact with plants can be highly damaging to wooden walls and fences. Thus, if you decide to grow espalier or any kind of vine on a house or outbuilding, do yourself a favor and build a stout support structure that will hold the plants well away from the wall. The plants will still get the benefit of the reflected heat and light, but by keeping a clear space between the plants and the wall, they’ll also get good air exchange, vital for preventing rots, mildews and mold build up on walls and plants alike.
If you don’t have the significant space required to grow full sized fruit trees, the ancient art of espalier allows even small gardens to produce a satisfying variety of fruit. For modern espalier, dwarf fruit trees are grafted on special root stock that limits their mature size to about 8 to 10 feet tall and wide. Dwarf trees become productive at a younger age than their full-sized kin and don’t require a ladder for pruning and harvesting. If properly pruned, they can thrive in tree pots or large containers where garden room is lacking.
Buddy System Training
Multiple-bud dwarf fruit trees are grafted with several varieties (usually 3-5) of a given fruit. The different varieties rarely grow with equal vigor, so if planting in the garden, always position the smallest of the grafted branches to face south to encourage strong growth. With careful pruning in the first few years, you can balance out the branching so each section becomes roughly equivalent.
Espalier pruning and training involves careful shaping of young trees so that all branches grow on a single plane. Generally the plants are grown against a south-facing wall or fence to provide support and protection from high winds. One great place to try your hand at espalier is on a chain link fence in a sunny area. Espaliered trees are planted 8-10 inches from their support and secured to a sturdy trellis. As they grow, young branches are gently tied in to the trellis to guide their development.
In winter, we prune dormant fruit trees to remove dead, damaged branches, or any growing the wrong way. Winter pruning triggers the release of hormones that encourage vigorous spring growth. Summer pruning is the key to making–and keeping—fruit trees shapely, productive, and picker-friendly. In summer, tree pruning stimulates fruit-ripening hormones rather than new growth, so trees stay smaller.
Pruning properly is hugely important with espalier; done right, you get bumper crops. Done wrong, you get bushy overgrowth and/or little fruit. For best results, prune back to a strong bud, a healthy branch, or to the main trunk. Be especially careful not to remove fruiting spurs when espalier pruning (get a pruning book from the library or look up guidelines online. Never remove more than 30% of a tree in a calendar year.
A Sucker Is Born All Too Often
Midsummer is the time to remove water shoots, which rise straight-up on fruiting limbs, and suckers, which come from the base of a tree. From late July into August, you can remove water shoots on fruit trees without triggering suckering. Water shoots crowd the tree, reducing air circulation and making it easier for diseases to take hold. They also shade out lower limbs, decreasing fruit production and size. Make clean cuts just outside a branch’s “collar” and never leave long stubs.
Base suckers usually indicate harm to the tree, whether from improper pruning, weed-whacker damage, nearby digging, drought, or disease. Some fruit trees (notably cherries) may send suckers a considerable distance from the mother tree, seeking a safer environment. All suckers should be removed every summer in order to redirect the energy to the upper limbs. When pruning, always use well-sharpened bypass loppers and pruners (not anvil types). Clean tool blades with alcohol wipes between different limbs or trees to avoid spreading diseases.
Aussie Pruning Tips
Here’s a charming how-to espalier pruning video made by Julian Blackhirst, Head Gardener at The Garden of St. Erth: