Espaliers: How to Conduct Plant Bondage

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We installed this witchhazel fan-type espalier at a clients home.

The art of espaliers entails training plants to grow flat against a wall, fence, or trellis in a particular shape, such a fan, U, V, T, or an X. Plants are pruned and tied on supports to achieve the desired form. Espaliers are ideal for Midwestern residents who have limited space or want to beautify a blank space with a ‘living wall’.

While there are many supple-stemmed specimens well-suited for espaliering, some lend themselves to certain forms.

Fruit trees [especially dwarf varieties] and brambles [raspberry, blackberry] are great for tiered, U, and X shapes.

Kinda something different at this clients home... We've lined their drive with these espalier apples. Now if we can stop them from driving over them yearly, we'd be set!!

Something different at this clients home… We’ve lined their drive with these tiered espalier apples. Now if we can stop the clientΒ from driving over them yearly, we’d be set!!

Cotoneaster, dogwood, redbud, rose,burning bush, witchhazel and yew work well as fans

Forsythia and mock orange grow best for arched or curved designs

Flowering vines do well in any shape such as wisteria, trumpet flower, clemantis, and passionflower, to name a few.

To achieve an earlier harvest, place espalier trees on a south or west-facing wall. This protects them from cold winds and baths them in sunlight. But be aware of late spring frosts that can damage buds and watch for heat stress in the summer.

Measure out the size of the framework needed for the type of plant and the space allowed. The minimum size wall a fruit tree can be espaliered on is eight feet. If the wall is less than eight feet, set the trunk at a 45 degree angle to the ground. To build the framework, thin, solid stakes of bamboo, oak, pine, or heavy-gauge, vinyl-coated wire should be used. The framework should be a perfect square grid, it’s the plant that will be manipulated to the desired shape.

Select shrubs with young, flexible branches and less than three feet tall. Bareroot varieties work well as espalier starts. Position the rootball 8-12 inches from the wall to allow for air circulation. Direct roots away from the wall.

Start training young stems by attaching them loosely with soft string, thin cloth strips, or raffia. If a branch has grown stiff that needs to be shaped,Β  wrap flexible wire along the shoot and slowly bend it to the desired position over the course of a few weeks. The wire can be removed once the branch has matured to the shape, usually in about a year.

To encourage the formation of buds, pinch off vegetative side shoots by June and thin out buds to 3 to 6 inches apart to produce larger fruits.

Pruning should be done during dormancy. Pinching out buds and shoots can be done through late spring, giving the new growth time to harden off by winter.

Sometimes folks are just crazy. Here is a poor Norway maple that gets pruned into a square each year…

square tree

© Ilex Farrell – Midwestern Plant Girl

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