Training Fruit Trees

One of the most dramatic contributions that can be made to a garden landscape by food plants is the technique of training fruit trees in two-dimensional patterns, known as ‘espalier’. Rather than planting fruit trees in an orchard-like arrangement they can be pruned and trained into a variety of different shapes, either free standing or supported against a wall, fence or other structure.

What is the Espalier Technique?

The espalier method entails training the fruit tree from an early age to develop shooting branches outward in a symmetrical pattern that leads to an almost two-dimensional plant. The growing shoots are pruned and the strongest tied to the support, trained to go sideways or upward and over the years the tree forms one of a number of different designs.

Although this leads to a dramatic look, particular if framed against a brick or stone wall, the origins of the method are about efficiency and growth and only later became aesthetic. The espalier method means that the fruit bearing portion of the tree always faces the sun, whereas a bush-style means that some branches and leaves will overshadow others.

This enables fruit that wouldn’t normally grow well in our climate to do better. This effect is enhanced if the fruit trees are on a wall as it absorbs the heat of the sun and releases it during the night, increasing the energy delivered to the plant and protecting it from the worst of the weather. These effects cause the fruit to mature more quickly and the concentration of the fruit makes it easier to gather the crop.

Different Espalier Patterns

Espalier patterns were developed in the Middle Ages although the is evidence that the technique originated in the Middle East. Many smaller, stoned fruit such as cherries, plums, peaches and apricots are often trained in a fan.

And while there’s nothing to stop apples and pears being grown this way it is more usual for them to be trained in a horizontal pattern. This will have one (or sometimes more) vertical main trunks with selected horizontal side shoots bearing the fruit.

What Can Espalier Offer to the Garden Landscape?

If you are planning to landscape your garden and include fruit trees then the espalier method can give you a lot more options. If you have a south-facing wall or fence that’s not particularly attractive then the espalier technique can obscure the offending wall and give you a fruit harvest every year as a bonus.

But espalier training doesn’t necessarily need a wall or fence. The fruit trees can be trained using a network of support sticks (bamboo is fine) that is extended each year until the tree is capable of standing on its own. This can be done with the fruit tree in a pot so that it can be moved around while it is being grown and trained.

Espalier as Hedge

If you plant a row of young fruit trees and train them in a cordon form then within about five years you will have an attractive screen. So an array of espalier-trained trees can do duty as a hedge to separate different areas of the garden both physically and visually.

Not only will it look dramatic, but you get the benefit of the fruit as well.