It’s the perfect season to start this elegant gardening technique
Centuries ago, farmers pruned the branches of fruit trees to grow along vertical planes such as fences and trellises in order to grow more trees in small spaces. Their sculptural appearance was so picturesque that the pruning technique—called “espalier”—gained favor in formal gardens, turning garden walls into living works of art. “Espalier has incredible ornamental interest,” says Greg Paige, curator of the arboretum at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories in south Charlotte. “For home gardeners who want to be engaged with their landscape, it’s a great thing to add to the palette of the design.” While espalier remains popular for fruit trees, the pruning technique can be used on ornamentals ranging from roses to crape myrtles. Before heading into the garden with a photo of a classic espalier shape and a pair of pruning shears, follow these tips to master the technique.
1. Prepare for Success
Espalier requires a vertical plane for the plant to follow. Choose a location in the garden with a back- drop such as a brick wall, fence, or trellis. Decide on the pattern you want to achieve (options range from fans and U shapes to hearts and candelabras) and set anchors in the vertical surface to mimic the pattern.
2. Choose Choose the right Plant
When it comes to espalier, one of the most common mistakes is attempting to shape a mature tree. “You need a young tree because it has more pliable branches that can be trained [into the desired shape],” explains Elden LeBrun, senior research lab associate at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories. The best species for espalier are trees with naturally spreading branches, including Southern magnolia, apple, and pear trees. Paige suggests steering clear of trees such as apricots that are susceptible to disease or do not tolerate well the stress of frequent pruning.
3. Start Small
LeBrun suggests starting with a small tree or shrub and an inexpensive trellis, and practicing the pruning techniques. Rose bushes and witch hazel make perfect “training” plants. “Once you get a feel for pruning the plant into a simple shape, move on to more complicated forms,” LeBrun says.
4. Perform regular maintenance
Once the plant is in the ground, attach the main shoots to the anchors using soft ties, and prune the excess branches. Fast growing plants like loro- petalum, a blooming evergreen shrub, will achieve the desired shape sooner than slow growers like apple trees, but will require a lot more maintenance. (You can espalier a loropetalum in about four years compared with 16 years for an apple tree, according to Paige). “It requires a significant investment of time to do the work to get [a tree] to achieve and maintain the form,” he says. “You need a plant and pruners to get started and creativity and patience to be successful.”