Espalier (pronounced is-PAL-yer or is-PAL-yay) is the art of training plants, often fruit trees, to grow in a single plane. Perfected by the French, this form of vertical gardening gives plants full sun and air while preserving valuable space. Espalier works especially well for small spaces and tight conditions, such as along a driveway or in a strip near a garage.
The technique is fairly easy, even for a beginner. It requires setting up a light support along a wall or fence, then installing one or two plants at the base and training them to grow along the supports. The plants need snipping every two to four weeks during the growing season. It takes two to six years for espaliered plants to fill out fully.
Most plants that lend themselves to espalier — including fruit trees and vines—need full sun. But avoid south-facing walls that get no relief from the sun, or the plants will sizzle on hot summer days. If your yard has light shade (about four hours of direct sunlight a day), try espaliering a perennial ivy.
As a rule, plants that work best for espalier must grow to at least 8 feet tall and have a branching tendency that lends itself to the pattern you want it to follow. The plant must have fairly pliable branches that don’t snap as you work with them.
Apple and pear trees are naturals because of their branching habits. Also, espalier makes them produce fewer but larger fruits, a plus for many gardeners. Think about what you like to eat, and choose dwarf varieties of those trees. Look for disease- and scab-resistant varieties.
Tall shrubs, such as Euonymous and Pyracantha, also can be shaped through espalier.
A variety of climbing plants can be used, including clematis, climbing roses, jasmine, and passionflower. It’s wise to stay away from vines that can top 20 feet because these rampant growers are difficult to keep in check, making espalier time-consuming.
Plants can be espaliered in a variety of designs. Apples and pears do best in horizontal, fan, or candelabra patterns. Dense vines, such as ivies, do well in tight diamond shapes.
- To guide placement of supports, use chalk to lightly mark the envisioned outline of the tree or vine on the fence or wall.
- Use eyelet screws with 2-inch shafts for
espaliering trees and smaller screws for espaliering lightweight vines.
- To train a plant on brick, stucco, or other masonry, drill a hole with a carbide-tip masonry bit, insert a plastic expansion anchor, then thread an eyelet screw into the anchor.
- Keep plants well-watered until they are established and show new growth. Fertilizer isn’t necessary for most trees, shrubs, or vines. Keep plants tightly pruned, cutting them
back every two or three weeks during the growing season.