Been growing fruit trees for a while now, and ready to challenge yourself by upping your game? Try espalier! It takes a bit of skill and patience, but you’re rewarded with a stunning vertical focal point for your edible garden — both practical and artistic. Follow these selective pruning steps to create your own masterpiece.
Which Trees Can I Espalier?
Most fruit trees espalier well — apples and pears are the most popular choices, with peaches, quince, and pomegranates also being good candidates. You want to choose a dwarf or semi-dwarf tree that is suitable for your growing climate, but remember — just as with any fruit tree, you’ll need more than one variety if your chosen tree is not self-pollinating.
What You’ll Need
While there are four common espalier forms, in this article we’re talking about how to create the classic 3-tiered cordon (it’s also the simplest). We’ll also assume for these directions that you are going to espalier against a structure like a wall using a post-and-wire structure as a support.
Note: These are not building plans. If you need a step-by-step set of directions for building your structure, you will need to obtain that first.
- Fruit tree
- (2) 4 x 4 pressure-treated wood posts
- galvanized wire, 12- or 14-gauge
- Measuring tape
- Digging shovel
- Pruning shears
- Stretchy plant ties
10 Easy Steps to Espalier Your Fruit Tree
- Decide upon your location — you’ll need a spot with full sun and about 8 linear feet of space.
- Build your structure. Your espalier will need a support structure to grow on as you prune and train it. A common structure includes (2) 4 x 4 wooden posts set 8’ apart, with 12-gauge galvanized wire stretched and attached between them at 18” horizontal centers (18” from the ground, and two more tiers each 18” taller than the previous one).
- Purchase and plant your tree. Bare-root trees are best, and unbranched whips are ideal. Plant it 8-12” centered in front of the support structure.
- Choose 2 branches to attach to the first level of wire. Look for strong and healthy, yet supple, branches. Using the plant ties, attach one branch to the wire going left, and the other going right.
- Prune out the other branches. Yes, this is kind of emotionally difficult to do, but trust us — it’s for the best. The center trunk is the “leader” and needs to be pruned just above the two branches previously attached. Prune out any other branch as well.
- Continue pruning throughout the growing season. Suckers grow straight up and need to be removed, but stubbier shoots called spurs will also grow. Leave one spur every 6” along your horizontal branch and prune off the rest.
- Year 2 pruning: Repeat steps 4-6 on the second horizontal wire.
- Year 3 pruning: Repeat steps 4-6 on the third and final horizontal wire.
- Periodically check the plant ties, and loosen or replace accordingly.
- Harvest fruit: Although your tree may bear fruit during the first summer, it’s best snip off cherry-sized growth until the third growing season. I know — this is brutal, but allowing your first and second growing seasons to be all about root and branch growth will give you a much larger, and better, harvest later on.