Espalier – Living Sculptures

Introduction

Espalier (pronounced “es-PAL-yer’ or “es-PAL-yay’) is a horticultural technique used to train plants to grow against a supportive structure such as a fence, trellis, or wall in order to create what some consider living art and sculptures. Many folks use this technique to save space as it ends up creating a two-dimensional plant through careful pruning and tying (with the help of something like soft string, strips of rags, rubber grafting bands) – my favorite example of saving space is in older times, espalier was sometimes used to grow trees or shrubs inside a castle courtyard, similar to how the verrier pattern in the below image was implemented.

(Courtesy of Matthew Trump, Creative Commons)

While the end result looks great and can provide a strong yield, many folks find this technique difficult as it is quite a long and labor intensive process. The plant takes much more time to grow, requires attention to detail, and a good amount of commitment.

Espalier Patterns

There are several different patterns you can choose from when planning your espalier, each have their own considerations to take in regards to the purpose and desired plant.
I’ve been interested in attempting an espalier with apple trees (which happens to be one of the easier trees to use as the new branches take longer to harden than other trees) for a few years now, I plan to give it my first go the next growing season. For my patterns, I am planning on using the vertical cordon pattern to grow a living wall; the vertical cordon involves training branches to grow at a 90 degree angle away from the tree trunk. As the tree grows taller, the vertical branches should be spaced 1 to 3 feet apart.

La Roche Jagu pommiers espalier.JPG
(Courtesty of Barbetorte, Creative Commons)

In the end design, the cordon will surround an area with trees designed using other espalier patterns such as the candelabra and the verrier. These two patterns are similar in that they use an upward U shape – the candelabra often uses a double or a triple U formation with round branches connecting off one another, while the verrier uses multiple 90 degree angles spaced 1 to 3 feet apart.   This publication from Kansas State contains simple examples and additional information.

Pruning

The maintenance of pruning an espalier designed tree follows many traditional techniques. The primary pruning should be done annually and should take place when the tree is dormant, in late fall or early spring; this is when the branches that don’t fit into the design are taken out. The growth you want the tree to focus on should be directed towards the appropriate pattern when the branches are still young and easy to manipulate. Throughout spring and summer, the tree will require regular pruning and tying to maintain its shape. The tied areas should be checked regularly to make sure there is no damage or restriction on growth. The ties can be removed once the final design is achieved and the tree is able to hold its shape.

I expect my plan to be a challenging venture as implementing an espalier design will add another time consuming task to my plate, however I am looking forward to spring!

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