What is ‘espalier?’ Espalier (es-pal-YAY) is a verb that means to train a tree or shrub to grow flat against a wall or other flat surface. Espalier is the art of pruning and training trees and shrubs against a wall or trellis to form symmetrical and flat geometric shapes. The Romans originated the technique of espalier to beautify their elaborate villas and gardens, and during the 16th century, the Europeans adapted the technique to promote fruit production of temperate fruit trees in cooler climates. The fruit trees were espaliered against a wall that reflected the sun and also absorbed the solar heat. Today, espalier is more commonly used for decorative and architectural accents in the home garden.
When to select espalier
An espaliered tree or shrub becomes a strong architectural element in the garden. Mature espaliered specimens are living sculptures and are particularly effective and decorative against a blank wall. The latest trend in home design is to incorporate the inside living area with the outside garden. Any outside space, no matter how small, can be used as outdoor living space. Espaliered trees and shrubs are wonderful plant choices for these areas because they add the beauty of living plants but do not take up too much space.
Espaliered plants can change a plain stucco or brick wall into a vital focal point in the garden. An espaliered tree can be used in a tight space because it does not need much room as it’s spread is lateral rather than canopy-like — an especially effective gardening technique to use in a courtyard or small walled-in garden. Narrow, enclosed driveways are also good spaces to experiment with a row of espaliered trees or shrubs. It becomes much more interesting than just planting a monotonous row of shrubbery. Choosing the right plant to espalier in the right space is the key to successful application. There is no better way to decorate a plain wall.
Which plants to choose?
Almost any plant can be trained by espalier. The gardener must continually direct the growth of the tree or shrub along a flat plane and remove any outward growth. It sounds time consuming — and it is — but the results are worth the effort. Here is a list of trees and shrubs that are well-suited to our climate in the Midlands and are conducive to the espalier pruning and training technique.
• Red Bud (Cercis canandensis)
• Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica)
• Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
• Magnolia grandiflora or other smaller varieties such as ‘Little Gem’
• Fig Trees such as ‘Brown Turkey’
• Holly (Ilex opaca — Savannah Holly) (Ilex latifolia — Lusterleaf holly)
• Loropetulum — These can be found already trained on a trellis and are a good way to start.
• Sasanqua japonica — These can also be found already trained on a wooden trellis and are easy to grow.
• Pyracantha (Pyracantha coccinea)
• Confederate Jasmine — This vine can be trained on a decorative trellis and formed into any desired geometric shape.
Choosing a pattern for the espalier depends on the type of plant chosen and the style of the garden. You also have to match the plant to the environment it will grow in. As in all gardening, shade-loving plants should be planted in shady areas and sun lovers planted in sunnier areas. Most of the plants listed are suited to an informal pattern while only a few are well-suited to a more formal espalier pattern. Confederate jasmine will do well for either because it must grow on a strong trellis or enforced wire. It can be trained to follow any shape or pattern but this does require a lot of maintenance.
Make a sketch of the pattern you desire and take it to one of our local nurseries. Ask for advice about which plant to purchase depending on the pattern you have chosen. Make no mistake, espaliers are very time consuming and definitely require maintenance but the reward of a beautifully trained tree or shrub are definitely worth the effort. Formal patterns will require more maintenance while informal patterns will require less.
Once you have chosen the plant, location and espalier pattern and support, the next step is plant installation. Plants should be planted 6 to 8 inches from the wall or support framework. The soil should be worked with organic matter to make sure the roots will have room to spread and that there is adequate drainage. Many times there will be building debris at the base of a wall. Remove as much of this as possible.
Dig as deep and as wide a hole as possible. I like to fill the hole with water to make sure it is moist and drains well before planting the tree or shrub. Also water the plant well while it is still in its pot. Make sure that it is watered all the way through down to its bottom roots. Remove the plant from its pot and install it into the drained hole. Make sure that it is planted at the same level it was growing in the pot. Refill the remaining area with the soil and organic matter.
Tamp the top of the plant to make sure there are no large air pockets. Water again and add 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch such as hard wood mulch, shredded bark or pine straw. I like to use pine straw if there is any slope to the planting area. The pine straw will not wash away on a slope the way shredded bark or hard wood mulch will. Give the plant a week or so to acclimate to its new home before beginning the espalier, or training process.
The espalier process
A formal espalier will require a trellis or other framework for support. A more informal pattern can be achieved with or without a trellis or framework. Eye bolts and galvanized wire may be used to create a custom design. The support will also add a decorative, architectural element to the garden until the plant is completely espaliered while creating interesting shadows against the wall or fence as well. The framework should be installed before the plants are planted. Once the framework is securely installed and the plants have acclimated to their new homes, the espalier process can begin.
Carefully bend the branches into the desired positions and secure them into place with plastic covered wire, gardening tape or twine. Remove all unwanted lateral branches and any branches growing forward. If there is no formal design, the branches may be tied in their natural positions on the trellis or framework making sure that no branches cross. Continue pruning during the growing season to remove any unwanted lateral or forward growing branches. Continue to secure the new growth to the trellis or framework.
Espaliered plants are more prone to disease and insect infestation because of the lack of air circulation. Keep a close eye on them and treat accordingly. Fertilize as you would any other shrub.
Growing espaliered plants is a very rewarding gardening process. It definitely takes more work than just planting a hedge of all one type of shrub. The rewards, however, are in direct correlation to the amount of effort put forth. Once it matures, add outdoor lighting so that it is a beautiful focal point of the garden, day and night. Good luck with this exciting gardening technique!
Chores for the October gardener:
- Plant perennials, biennials and hardy annuals. Some plants to consider: aquilegia, dianthus, Shasta daisy, hosta, snapdragons, pansies, violas and stock.
- Sow wildflower seeds now: sweet peas, larkspur and poppies.
- If your herbs look tired, replant perennials herbs such as sage, thyme and rosemary.
- As soon as it is consistently cool, plant trees and large shrubs.
- Divide and transplant daylilies, hosta, iris, ajuga, liriope, mondo grass, rudbeckia, coneflowers and other crowded perennials.
- Prune out any long, irregular or crossing branches of evergreen shrubs and trees.
- Lawns may be over-seeded with annual rye grass for a green lawn all winter.
- Re-mulch any areas where the mulch has disintegrated.
- Try rooting geraniums from your spring garden. Take 5 to 6 inch cuttings and put in water until roots appear. Transplant to a pot with light potting soil and good drainage. Put in a shady spot in the garden and keep moist. Bring in when there is a threat of frost.
- Visit one or all of our well-stocked local nurseries and investigate what is blooming this time of year.
- Enjoy the last blooms of perennials and inhale the wonderful fragrance of blooming tea olives … my favorite part of October gardening.