How to Make an EspalierAs a noun, the French word “espalier” means trellis or framework and is used to describe a series of trees or shrubs that have been trained and sculpted to grow in a single plane. As a verb, “espalier” is the act of training the tree or plant resulting in an artistic framework.

For those who are truly interested in the intricacies of landscape design, this is a perfect option to consider for small area landscaping. Applying the espalier technique to fruit trees is a great way to grow fresh fruit in limited spaces.

Creating an espalier requires patience, determination and maintenance so unless you’re prepared to make a time commitment, this may not be a landscape design option for you. However, if you’re challenged in finding design ideas for covering an expanse of wall, have a very small area in which to landscape or are just curious about the art of tree training, then read on.

What Plants or Trees to Use

Espalier Tree Training OptionsWhen looking to decorate a large expanse of blank wall or create a screen wall in confined spaces, almost any plant can be used to espalier. The deciding factors will be what type of pattern you want to achieve and also what your tolerance is for maintenance. The art of espalier requires frequently clipping and pruning trees through maturity so  if you are not prone to pruning on a regular basis, then selecting slower growing plant options may be best.

The key to plant selection is to choose ornamental species that have flexible branches, provide attractive foliage, produce scented blossoms or will bear fruit in narrow surroundings. Just a few of the more commonly used plants for espalier are:

  • Creeping Fig
  • Firethorn (Pyracantha)
  • Wisteria
  • Southern Magnolia
  • Bradford Pear
  • Yew
  • Apple
  • Forsythia
  • Cotoneaster

To Support or Not to Support

Your espalier can make a simple statement or can be a complex landscape design.

Selecting an informal pattern or permitting the plants to grow free-form, without a complex design, will required much less setup and care than the more complicated patterns. Simple and free-form designs will require little, if any, structural support and may look more like vines climbing on a wall.

When making a more intricate design selection you’ll need a framework on which you will train your tree or plant to grow. Your framework should be made out of a weather resistant and wood-rot resistant material like redwood or cedar.

You may also choose to use unnatural materials like wire or nylon cord.  Using cotton rope or hemp is not recommended because this will decay rapidly when exposed weather.

Tips for Creating an Espalier

Creating an espalier is not as intimidating as the word itself may imply. It requires simple, inexpensive and readily available materials. This can be an interesting family project, especially when using trees that bear fruit or shrubs with fragrant blooms that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Here are some tips to help you decide if this is a design option for you:

1)   Consider growing conditions when you make your plant selection. Be sure to know your soil type, best sources of sunlight and area drainage because you’ll want your plants to thrive.

2)   Building a frame or trellis in the shape you want to your espalier to be in and attaching it to your wall will make it easier to get your plants started and will make maintenance easier. When you attach the framework model to your wall ensure you have spacers behind it for circulation. This will also help minimize any wall staining.

3)   Planting on south or east facing walls provides the best light. Using a north facing wall will restrict foliage growth and give you fewer blooms.

Espalier Tree Training4)   Start your espalier with a small 1-gallon container. While it might seem more advantageous to go with a 3 or 5 gallon to start, the growth pattern for a plant in that size container may not be what you want for your wall. Staying with a 1-gallon container provides the most flexibility.

5)   If you’ve made the decision to start with fruit trees, be sure you begin with a single stem also known as a “whip” – these are very young fruit trees that are not yet branched.

6)   Plant your tree or shrub as you would any other but ensure that the depth of the planting is the same as the container it came from. Make sure you’ve prepared the soil with a fertilizer, keep the plant 6 to 10 inches away from the wall for air circulation, pest control and optimal root growth. Add 2″ or 3″ of some type of mulch around the plant base.

7)   Pruning done in late winter or early spring, before the new growth starts, will actually stimulate plant growth. Pruning during the growing season will stunt plant growth restricting your desired results.

8)   As the branches in your design start to grow, they can be tied with a non-cotton string or twist ties to your framework to hold branches in place. The ties should be checked every several months to make sure they are not cutting into the branches as they grow and expand in size. Loosen the ties as needed or remove them if no longer needed.

Training your trees or shrubs to cover an expanse of blank wall or add life to a small back yard, creates an amazing focal point for your landscape in a living piece of art you can enjoy for years.

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