Espalier fruit trees

For years I have worked hard at tearing up my lawn and replacing it with garden beds for vegetables.  I have a constant battle with shade from trees I own as well as trees on the parking strip outside my west facing fence.  Putting in additional trees did not seem to ever be a possibility as I did not have the space and the increased shade would be detrimental to my vegetable garden.  Then while watching an episode of the Victory Garden I learned about espalier apple trees.  This process sparked my imagination and I soon purchased five apple trees and a pear tree for the experiment.  I could plant these trees near my fenceline, train them to run along the fence and clip the tops so they do not grow any taller than my fence.  Little space used, no additional shade and fresh fruit in the normal sized surburban lot.  Win win.

After a lot of reading about pruning I set off on the experiment two falls ago.  This winter my dog destroyed one of my espalier apples but did not kill it.  I pruned it back to how you originally start with an espalier and this provides excellent photographs of the initial process.

I have trees in various stages, single tier, double tier and triple tier.  I have included photos of each.  I will explain the process and hope the photographs successfully illustrate what I discuss.

You can even prune the trees to one tier and use them as a “step over” to give a one foot little border fence for visual appeal.

When you first get an apple tree, you can pick whatever variety you want, no matter how big the tag tells you they will get, as you will be pruning them to the size you want.  Pruning for espalier trees is a constant process.  Apples need other apple trees for pollination.  Your neighborhood probably already has other apple trees that will do the trick but you may want to buy more than one variety to ensure pollination by the bees.

The rirst step is to prune all the branches off of a tree and make the tree as tall as your first lower tier will be.  It looks pretty pitiful but that is how you need to start.  I pruned the top where I thought it would bud out but I was slightly off so I will be pruning down to right above the top bursting bud in the near future.

Trying to cheat by doing more than one tier on an existing tree may work but it may also delay the necessary outward growth for a full lower tier. You need to examine the tree for buds, specifically you need two outside buds that will form branches for your first tier with a bud right above the two outside buds.  You will prune the tree right above the top bud.  In the first year this forces the tree to put all its energy into growing out the side buds and top bud.  The top bud should be allowed to grow without pruning the first full year.

You can now install stakes on either side of the tree about ten or twelve feet apart.  I used metal fence posts and I purchased heavy duty wire and connectors to string and secure the wire.

You can purchase a turnbuckle style that you can easily adjust the tension of the wire.  I did not bother to do this with the apples but I did purchase the turnbuckles for my grape trellis but that is a future post.  I learned quickly that once you put any tension on the line the posts will flex in.  You need to connect wire to the top of the outside of the posts and run them to a stake in the ground to keep them straight with the desired tension.

As the first tier branches grow out you simple use any soft material or ties to loosely attach the branches to the wire to train them.  Do not tighten the binding as it will girdle the branch as it grows and you may have to adjust the binding periodically to ensure this does not happen.

The second spring you will again pick two outside buds with a close top bud at the heighth of the next tier.  You again prune the top right above the selected top bud and let it grow out for the full year.  The next year you repeat the process until you have the desired level of tiers.

Shoots coming off the main branch should be pruned to four inches in length in the early summer and any shoots coming off the new main shoots should be pruned to two inches.  This will set the fruit clusters close to the main branch for support.  Books suggest thinning fruit to every six to eight inches but you have a few years to worry about that.

That is as simple and as complex as it is.  You can espalier pear trees but peach trees are too brittle for this purpose.

Hope this inspires you to try fruit in your yard.  It is a multi year investment before the fruit of your work is realized but it is fun watching the process knowing you are in control for once.


About urbancompostsystems

I am a retired law enforcement officer who is an avid gardener. I have a compost bin business named Urban Compost Systems. I believe strongly in the concept of growing healthy food and I utilize chickens and redworms in my "compost system". The only ingredients that I need from outside my system are leaves in the fall and some supplemental grass clippings from neighbors. I make hundreds of gallons of compost in my four bin system. I thoroughly enjoy the summer bounty I get from my yard and I take great pride in knowing that I am using my yardwaste to make healthy compost for my yard.
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2 Responses to Espalier fruit trees

  1. Kim says:

    A question for you Scott;

    Will the fruit trees push up the fence line at the base near the soil over time? Will the trees lean the fence with the supports for the branches as well? Just looking ahead! Thanks for All your advice with the vegetables and fruits in your Blog! You Rock!

    • Good questions.  I plant the trees a foot or so away from the property line.  The roots will grow where they want to grow but the actual trees are trained on the wire attached to posts and are not attached to the fence in any way.  Should not have any impact on the fence itself.  If the roots were to come close to surface I would chop out that root if it was problematic with the fence.  Thanks for the questions. 

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