Espalier fruit trees: cultivation, care & best types
Fruit trees are not just for large gardens or orchards. They can be trained to grow in set shapes, saving space, creating attractive features in the garden and even making picking the fruit easier. Learn how to grow and care for espalier fruit trees in any size garden.
Growing espalier fruit trees in a garden is a highly decorative way of growing and training fruit. It is a practice often used when space is limited but this space-saving method of growing fruit is also capable of producing an abundance of fruit. Apple and pears are traditionally the favoured choices of fruit for growing as espaliers, but peaches, apricots, cherries, nectarines and figs can all be trained to grow as certain shapes.
What are espalier fruit trees?
Espalier fruit trees have been grown throughout history as a way to take advantage of the heat produced from walls. Growing trees against brick or stone walls allow the fruit to benefit from a warmer micro-climate. That micro-climate is perfect for producing fruit. And the intensive pruning required with espaliers directs energy into the lateral fruit-bearing spurs and away from the vertical growth, resulting in heavier yields.
The term espalier refers to attaching fruit trees to a framework to grow along. Over the course of several years, the trees are meticulously cut and shaped to train them into a flat, two-dimensional shape. Fruit trees are often seen trained with horizontal regularly spaced branches growing from a central trunk, although they can be trained into a variety of shapes that fall under the umbrella term of espalier.
Growing espaliered fruit trees not only saves space, meaning fruit can be grown even in small gardens, but it also has an artistic component. The trained formal shapes that the fruit trees can be grown in are really aesthetically pleasing.
There is a difference between cordon and espalier when it comes to fruit trees. An espalier typically has a central vertical stem with tiers of horizontal stems that will bear fruit. Cordon fruit trees are trees grown as a single stem, or more stems trained at 45-degree angles, with fruit on laterals off the central stem. Espaliers are more ornamental than cordons and need more maintenance and space.
Best fruit trees to espalier?
Apples and pears are the most common fruit trees to be trained to grow in a range of shapes. This is due to the fact that they are the most versatile and easiest to train to grow in many forms.
Apple trees are easier to espalier since their new stems do not harden as soon as pear trees. The best fruit trees to espalier are spur-bearing and those that bear fruit on long-living spurs are ideal for espalier. This is why you most commonly see an espalier pear tree or espalier apple tree, as they produce fruit on the same spurs for years. Also, both have supple new growth that is easy to train.
Fruit trees as espaliers must be grown on slow-growing rootstocks. Slow-growing apple rootstocks are usually ‘M9’ and ‘M27’. Pear trees are grafted on quinces such as ‘Quince A’ or Quince C’ rootstocks to reduce growth.
Peaches and pomegranates are also good alternatives to grow as espaliers. Other stone fruits, such as apricots, plums and cherries, and figs work well trained as fans against walls and fences, while soft fruit can be pruned and trained as fans against sunny walls.
The following apple and pear varieties a great for training as espalier fruit trees:
- Apple ‘Gala’: a strong, vigorous and reliable cropper that produces flushed red apples with a sweet flavour.
- Apple ‘Topaz’: a reliable apple tree that has the advantage of being disease-resistant, especially to scab. Crops well with sweet and juicy fruit.
- Apple ‘Worcester Permain’: a classic old English apple that gives reliable and strong harvests of firm, delicious red apples with a hint of strawberry taste.
- Pear ‘Conference’: is a reliable and strong cropper, producing an abundance of fruit even in challenging conditions. Can be trained to grow even on north-facing walls.
- Pear ‘Concorde’: very heavy-cropping pear with a superb flavour. Ideal for training thanks to flexible side shoots.
These stone fruit varieties can be trained as espaliers:
- Peach ‘Avalon Pride’: resistant to peach leaf curl; offers large and juicy peaches from August.
- Peach ‘Saturne’: the doughnut peach is a reliable cropper with flat yellow peaches with an orange flush.
- Apricot ‘Flavorcot’: sweet and juicy fruits; early-cropping variety that is suitable for growing in pots.
- Cherry ‘Morello’: large dark red almost black cherries; can tolerate shadier spots in the garden.
- Cherry ‘Stella’: a self-fertile sweet cherry perfect for training with a long cropping season of dark red fruits.
Different espalier designs
There are many different espalier designs than the most commonly seen horizontal espalier. Here are some of the most popular espalier designs:
Horizontal Espalier Palmate
The most common form of espalier has horizontal lateral branches that branch out in both directions from a central stem. This type of espalier can grow up to 400cm wide and encourages the development of fruiting wood. The horizontal espalier palmate design can also be used to create a dense screen.
Fan-trained fruit trees
A fan-trained espalier system features multiple branches coming from near the base of the fruit tree. Fan shapes are ideal for stone fruits that do not develop well in other restricted growing forms. While apples and pears can be great fan-trained fruit trees, other options include cherries, pears, plums and apricots. It is particularly suitable for sour cherries and peaches, which are cut back every year. The new branches are then attached to the fan to bear fruit next year. Fans are ideal for stone fruits because their flexible branches allow for the formation of flatter shapes and angles.
The U Shape
A U shape espalier involves training two vertical branches off a horizontal branch. It is a very productive and one of the simplest trained forms to look after. However, it is not suitable for stone fruits. The central stem is cut and later removed so that side shoots sprout at the bottom. Two favourably positioned side shoots are selected and guided vertically upwards to form a ‘U’. It is possible to create a double U shape, to do this the existing ‘U’ is trimmed to create side shoots which can then be trained upwards into another U shape. Thus, creating another U-shaped fork on the arms of the lower U.
The Palmette Verrier is a variation on the U-shape. The leading stem is repeatedly pruned over several years so that side shoots sprout. The side shoots are trained upwards to form a U-shape, one level above the preceding ‘U’. It offers an even supply of fruit from top to bottom. This method requires at least 200cm of space.
A step-over espalier is a very short horizontal espalier with only one pair of branches trained horizontally 40cm above the ground. This method is commonly used to create a border around beds or along the edges of paths, making it possible to grow fruit in a very small space.
How to espalier a fruit tree
The first step in how to espalier a fruit tree is to install an espalier frame. You need to install horizontal wires spaced around 38cm to 46cm (15 – 18 inches) apart on a wall or other framework. It is recommended to install the wires and frame before planting the fruit tree against the wall to avoid potentially damaging the tree during the later installation of the framework.
The process of espalier training is one that requires time and patience, as it can take up to 5 years from the initial planting to have the form you desire. Trees should be planted at least 3.5m (12 feet) apart, and after watering the tree, consider mulching around it with compost or organic matter.
It is common to see an espalier on a wall, but fruit trees can either be trained against a wall or on a framework. For both scenarios, choose materials that will provide a strong anchor to support a potentially heavy tree and materials that will last and will not need regular replacing that could damage the tree. Use weather-resistant wood and durable steel wires that can be re-tensioned every few years.
Tip: by choosing selected cultivars it is possible to grow espalier fruit trees in pots. Choose a variety on a dwarf rootstock to control the vigour and make it more suitable for container growing. Choose a pot at least 45 to 60cm in diameter for dwarfing rootstock and ensure it has good drainage. If you are growing espalier fruit trees in containers, then a fertile planting compost is essential. Our Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost is made from 100% natural ingredients and is packed with essential nutrients to create healthy soil and help grow strong plants and trees. Pruning espalier fruit trees in containers is the same as fruit trees grown in the ground.
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Most important care measures
The main difference in caring for espalier fruit trees, when compared to other standard fruit trees, is the pruning. Pruning espalier apple trees, or any other fruit, varies depending on the shape you are going for.
Espalier fruit trees are routinely pruned twice during the year, in winter and in summer. Winter is the time for more major work to occur to correct and maintain the overall shape of the espalier. Summer pruning restricts the growth and allows more light in to help ripen the fruit. Any new shoots coming off the main horizontal branches are cut back to three buds and any of this year’s growth from existing side shoots (ones that were pruned the previous year) are cut back to one bud.
One area of caring for espalier apple trees or pear trees that is always key to establishing any tree, is watering. It is best to water the tree slowly, for example, using a watering can with a rose attachment or sprinkler, as this mimics rainfall and also helps distribute the water over the root ball to promote root development. Water when planting the tree and throughout spring and summer until the tree drops its leaves. This should be repeated for the first two summers to promote strong root growth that then ensures the tree can access water from the soil.
It is recommended to apply fertiliser to espalier fruit trees every year. The best time to do this is in spring just before the buds start to break. Most fruit trees require potassium for bud and fruit development, and the likes of apples, pears and stone fruits need nitrogen as well. It is best to use a primarily organic long-term fertiliser, as mineral fertilisers can lead to increased shoot growth and irregular yields. Our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food has a long-lasting effect and contains the key potassium and nitrogen to provide the espalier fruit trees with all the nutrients they need.
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Apple trees can be susceptible to a range of pests and diseases, just like any other plant. If you want to grow an apple tree and want to find out more or have an apple tree affected by pests, check out our article on the most common apple tree pests and diseases.