Learning how to train and prune fruit trees in certain different ways can help you to make the most of the space you have available. And pruning and training trees as espaliers is one of the ways that you can grow fruit in a smaller space and potentially increase the yields that are possible from your garden. In this article, you will learn about how to espalier fruit trees, including supporting, when to prune, and what to do with neglected espaliers.
- What is an Espalier?
- Choosing a Fruit Tree to Espalier
- Support for Espalier Fruit Trees
- When to Prune Espaliers
- How to Prune and Train Espaliers
- 1. Pruning and Training from Scratch
- 2. Pruning After Planting in Winter to Early Spring
- 3. Training in the First Spring and Summer After Planting
- 4. Training New Tiers on Partially Trained Espaliers
- 5. Pruning in Winter or Early Spring
- 6. Training a New Tier in Spring and Summer
- 7. Summer Pruning an Established Espalier
- 4 Steps to Summer Pruning
What is an Espalier?
Espaliered fruit trees are usually meant to be placed up against a wall or fence. They have a relatively flat profile and won’t take up too much space or cast too much shade in your garden. An espaliered tree carries its fruit on evenly matched horizontal branches, which are trained along horizontal supports out from the central trunk.
One unusual type of espalier fruit tree is a ‘step-over’ tree. A step over apple tree is a popular option for edging areas of a garden, a vegetable plot or potager bed. This is a fruit tree trained horizontally, with the vertical leader removed and branches trained horizontally at low level.
A related though somewhat different idea, pleached fruit trees are trees trained to have a bare trunk at low level, with a square of horizontally trained branches at the top. When placed next to each other, fruit trees of this type create a raised or floating hedge. These can be placed to allow light through beneath, or placed in front of a fence to provide more privacy in your garden by raising the height of this border fence or lower wall.
Choosing a Fruit Tree to Espalier
Only certain types of fruit tree are suited to training to the espalier form. Spur-bearing apple and pear trees are best suited to this, and some partial tip-bearing varieties may also work. Tip-bearing apples and pears are not recommended as trying to espalier these can be very challenging. Most other fruit trees are best trained into fans or other shapes.
If you have space for only a single fruit tree in your garden, then you need to think about pollination and select a self-fertile apple or pear tree for the space. If you are able to grow more than one tree, make sure that when the varieties are not self-fertile, that they have appropriate pollination partners.
Remember that when you are choosing a fruit tree, you will usually be selecting a grafted tree and need to consider not only the named cultivar – the upper part – but also the rootstock. The rootstocks most commonly used for espaliered apples and peas are:
- M26 for smaller apple espaliers with a final width of around 3 – 3.6m, in fertile soil.
- MM106 for smaller apple espaliers that will grow to around 3.6-4.5m wide.
- MM111 for large espaliers with more than 4 tiers, which grow 4.5-5.5m wide.
- Quince A for pear espaliers that will usually grow around 3.6- 4.5m wide.
Support for Espalier Fruit Trees
Before you can place and establish espalier fruit trees in your garden, you need to think about creating a support structure for your new addition.
This traditionally involves creating a series of horizontal wires attached to a wall, around 35-45cm apart. The wires should be taut, and at least 10cm away from the wall to maintain good airflow.
You may also create a structure of supporting posts with wires. Make sure that the supports are 1.8m tall and are extremely well anchored in the ground, sturdy and secure.
If starting from scratch, the lowest wire of your support should be around 40cm above ground level. If you are starting with a partially trained tree, make sure that the wires match up with the positions of existing horizontal branches.
Espaliers or new apple or pear trees can be planted in the ground at the base of the support , or placed in a large container at the base of the structure.
When to Prune Espaliers
One of the key things to understand if you would like an espalier fruit tree in your garden is that they require a regimen of careful pruning and training to become established, and throughout their lives. So they will take more work than a standard fruit tree over time.
Pruning on espalier fruit trees will usually take place during several periods of the year.
New espaliers that need to be trained into this form from scratch and partially trained trees that have been purchased and to which you wish to add more tiers are typically pruned in winter or early spring and more in the late summer.
Established, mature espaliers are typically pruned in the late summer once growth slows.
Overgrown mature espaliers can get some renovation pruning in winter, during the dormant period.
How to Prune and Train Espaliers
There are different pruning and training regimes for espaliers that depend on the stage it is at when purchased, and also on the maturity of the specimen. In order to understand how to proceed, it is usual to divide pruning and training into three key categories:
- Establishment pruning and training for new espaliers.
- Maintenance pruning and training for established espaliers.
- Renovation pruning for mature espaliers.
1. Pruning and Training from Scratch
If you wish to start from scratch, you will begin with a one year old single-stem tree which is known either as a whip or a maiden. You will prune after planting in winter to early spring, and train the first spring and summer.
2. Pruning After Planting in Winter to Early Spring
Plant your whip or maiden in front of your wire supports. Tie a bamboo cane vertically to the wires at the centre and tie in the stem to this cane.
Next, prune the stem down to leave just 5-7cm of growth above the lowest wire, Make your cut just above a healthy bud. From this bud, a replacement central stem will grow, from which a second tier can be trained.
Lower buds on the existing stem will lager form the branches for the lowest tier of the espalier.
3. Training in the First Spring and Summer After Planting
The new shoot that grows from the first bud should be tied in to the vertical bamboo cane.
Branches growing lower down should be selected to form the horizontal branches of the first tier. But these should not be tied in horizontally just yet. Instead, in spring, they should be tied to bamboo canes tied to the wires at an angle of around 40 degrees. Otherwise, the growth will be curbed too greatly.
Tie in the branches chosen to form the first tier to the horizontal wires only in late summer, once growth has slowed and stopped. At this time, you should also prune back all tbe other side shoots not selected to leave just 2-3 leaves on each one.
4. Training New Tiers on Partially Trained Espaliers
If you have purchased a partly trained tree, or are proceeding from the stage above, you can repeat this process until you have as many tiers as you ultimately desire and have filled your support structure.
5. Pruning in Winter or Early Spring
Prune the central stem to just above a healthy bud just above the next horizontal support wire. The top bud will provide the new main vertical stem, while buds lower down will form the next tier of branches.
If the two branches trained to grow horizontally the previous year are not growing very well, prune these back by up to a quarter and consider raising them back up to 40 degree angle before lowering them back to horizontal again the following late summer.
Prune out any other side shoots that are not wanted that grow directly from the main stem.
6. Training a New Tier in Spring and Summer
Tie in the new main stem to the vertical cane as it grows.
Choose your new branches to form the next tier and tie these in to canes set at a 40 degree angle, to promote strong and healthy growth.
Tie the new branches horizontally once they have stopped growing in late summer. And prune back all side shoots growing from these branches to 3-4 leaves.
7. Summer Pruning an Established Espalier
Established espaliers are those that have all of their tiers in place. They need to be pruned every summer in order to keep them healthy, in shape, and fruiting well.
Pruning should be carried out for maintenance of your established espalier once the lowest third of new growth has turned woody, which is from around late July for pears and in the second half of August for apples.
4 Steps to Summer Pruning
- Once you are above the highest tier, remove the whole of the new central shoot above this point.
- Cut back side shoots from all the horizontal branches to leave 3-4 leaves above the basal cluster of leaves.
- If the side shoot was pruned in previous years, cut it back to leave just one leaf above the basal clump of leaves.
- Remove any overly strong and quick growing upright shoots, especially those originating from the main stem or horizontal branches. If there are lots of vigorous upright shoots, you can also bend these down and tie them with their tips pointing downwards.
What to look for
- Basal cluster of leaves – leaves growing closely together at the base of the current season’s growth.
- Side shoots emerging from horizontal branches – prune back to leave 3-4 leaves.
- Previously pruned side shoots – cut back to one leaf above the basal leaf cluster.
- Terminal bud – this forms at the ends of shoots from late summer, indicating that growth has stopped for the year. They indicate that it is a good time to summer prune espalier fruit trees as well as some other shaped forms.
Mature espaliers may need renovation pruning in order to continue to perform well. Thinning out fruiting spurs and shortening long side shoots are the main things to consider.
- Thinning Out Fruiting Spurs
Once an espalier has been established for 7-8 years, you may need to start thinning out fruiting spurs in the winter. You may remove a few each year during the dormant period, to reduce overly complex spur systems to one or two fruit buds.
- Shortening Long Side Shoots
Over time, side shoots growing from horizontal branches may become too long, growing too far from the support structure, taking up space, and only fruiting towards their ends. It is best to renovate these slowly a step at a time.
In winter, cut back up to a third of the overly long shoots to leave stubs 3-5cm long. Make your cut just above a well-placed dormant bud. But take care not to remove more than a third in any one year. Take 1/3 only, evenly from around the espalier, and spread the job over at least 3 winters.
Make sure, in addition, that you follow this with regular annual summer pruning as normal.
If an espalier is neglected, the top will often become bushy while lower tiers become unproductive, growing only slowly, or even dying back. Removing the top tier is a drastic step, but can sometimes allow the rest of the espalier to recover. But this will usually only work if the lower tiers are still growing well and are in reasonably good condition.
What is the best fruit tree to espalier?
Spur-bearing apple and pear trees are the best fruit trees to espalier, as these will be the easiest to train and prune correctly.
Do espalier trees need a wall?
Espalier fruit trees are generally trained to grow against a wall. However, they can also potentially be trained against a sturdy fence, a trellis, or along a framework of wires in the open.
Can you train any fruit tree as Espalier?
No, aside from apples and pears, most fruit trees are not suitable for training into this form. Other fruit trees can, however, be fan trained, cordoned, or trained into some other forms where space is limited.
Can any apple trees be espaliered?
Any apple tree can be espaliered, but some will respond to this type of training far better than others. Spur-bearing apples are best, but tip-bearing types will be very challenging to grow in this way. It is also important to select trees with the right rootstock for the best results.
Diacono, M., (2022) What you need to know about training fruit trees, from fans and spirals to arches, palmettes and beyond. Country Life. [online] Available at: https://www.countrylife.co.uk/gardens/gardening-tips/what-you-need-to-know-about-training-fruit-trees-from-fans-and-spirals-to-arches-palmettes-and-beyond-237494 [accessed 22/12/23]
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.