The New York Times - A Tree Sculptor Revives an Ancient Art

Published: December 28, 2000
Source: The New York Times

PETER THEVENOT, nurseryman and arborphile, calls himself ''a gnarly-bark guy.'' On a Saturday morning last October, he steered his pickup truck toward a lichen-covered river birch near the bank of Big Sewee Creek, which joins the Tennessee River on the edge of his 340-acre farm here. The birch's peeling bark was reddish-brown, tan and white, with the texture of parchment. ''Isn't that cool?'' Mr. Thevenot asked.

Most people admire trees for their leaves or blossoms. Mr. Thevenot says he loves them for their hides. ''Flower color is just so fleeting that if that's all you're buying a tree for, I think you're really in for a huge disappointment,'' he said.

Mr. Thevenot resembles Ralph Waite during his days playing John the elder on ''The Waltons,'' and his voice discloses his Cajun roots in southern Louisiana. ''The interesting thing about bark,'' he added, ''is that you're usually dealing with a plant that you're going to have to stay with for a long time before it begins to show you all its little secrets.''

The trees at Mr. Thevenot's nursery, River Road Farms, confide in their keeper in unusual ways. He is one of a handful of growers in the country who specialize in espalier, the ancient and all but forgotten art of training fruit and ornamental trees to grow flat against a wall or fence, sometimes forming extravagant architectural shapes. In this rarefied form of horticulture, the trunks and limbs of trees are the only lines the artist has to work with, so the bark that covers them gives the final work its character.

Mr. Thevenot, 58, is making it his life's mission, he said, to bring espalier back to the public eye. In rows across one big flat field, he keeps some 1,300 trees trained up against miles of high tension hog-wire grids -- a material normally used to fence in swine. With his guidance, the plants grow flat, in two dimensions rather than three, to resemble crosses, candelabras, tuning forks or palmette fans. One apple tree is taking the shape of a heart. On part of his proving ground, Mr. Thevenot is training two parallel rows of trees along a wire frame to form an arcure, or arched enclosure, about eight feet high.

Up the hill, outside the stately, two-story stone house where he lives, Mr. Thevenot has a Belgian fence of trees he marshaled into a woven-basket pattern, 7 feet high and 40 feet across. He's growing Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and Arkansas Black apples. He grows pears, too: Bartletts, Shinko Asians, Kieffers and nonbearing Bradfords. And there are the Prairie Fire crab apples, with their maroon shoots and clusters of crimson fruit. ''They make the most beautiful wood and colors, but they are so slow to trunk up,'' he said.

Because espalier takes years to mature into its fullest glory, it can -- as it has for Mr. Thevenot -- turn into a lifetime pursuit for the devoted, whose numbers, based on anecdotal evidence, appear to have increased over the last several years. The espalier revival is on.

''Espalier is hot,'' said Dean Norton, the horticulturist at Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate on the Potomac near Alexandria, Va. ''It's great fun, and what's really nice about it is that it takes a watchful eye.''

Wendy Proud, product manager for Monrovia, a wholesale nursery in Azusa, Calif., said that though espalier largely fell out of popularity in the 20th century, it has been staging a comeback as gardeners look for new -- if old -- ideas, especially for tight spaces.

In 1988, Mr. Thevenot sold his occupational-training business in Baton Rouge, La. He and his wife, Beth, bought this farm near Decatur, the seat of Meigs County, which nestles in the softly rolling hills of the Tennessee River Valley about midway between Knoxville and Chattanooga. He left behind the expense-account life and ''28 pounds of neckties'' for fresh meals, good wine and a snort of bourbon now and then.

Four years later, Mr. Thevenot planted his first young fruit trees and began selling the best ones four years after that, once he had whipped them into espaliered shapes. Since then, Mr. Thevenot's business has grown handsomely. In 1996, he gave away samples of his first available batch. The next year, he sold 35 trees. This year, he sold about 350, mostly to professional gardeners and landscape designers, but also to individual gardeners. The trees generally cost $225 to $375 each -- and more for the most complicated types.

Espalier came as a revelation to Mr. Thevenot. He had been trying to run an all-purpose nursery for several seasons by growing oaks, crape myrtles and magnolias. But on a trip to Mount Vernon in the early 1990's, he discovered several robust pear and apple cordons, a subtype of espalier trained as a living fence. They lined the beds of the estate's sunny kitchen garden, which are carpeted with a gravel of crushed Chesapeake Bay oyster shells, just as they were when Washington lived there.

Still other espaliered trees were climbing the garden's walls. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, the nonprofit group that owns and maintains the house and grounds, had its oldest cordons installed in 1937.

Today, their trunks are as thick as a man's thigh, with arm-size branches reaching out four feet to either side to join neighboring limbs. Washington was a clever gardener, and the estate's records mention ''gardeners tying trees to walls,'' Mr. Norton said. ''It was a common practice in the 18th century.''

Of his initial encounter with espalier, Mr. Thevenot said: ''I had no clue that you could have a living piece of art in your landscape and that it could bear fruit. So then I got started in the garden.''

Successful espalier involves knowing where and when to prune a plant to control the growth of its main leader, or young trunk, while favoring growth along specifically spaced branches. The patterns are created by manipulating and tying the branches to wires or other supports. But perfect alignments are not a natural convenience. Mr. Thevenot sometimes has to try to fool his plants into fashion. Sometimes a tree's primary bud won't extend gracefully outward as he would like it to, so he cuts a notch just above it to stimulate the secondary bud to replace it. ''It was several years before I had any kind of salable plant,'' Mr. Thevenot said. ''Basically, I butchered the hell out of them.''

Although some espalier practitioners might cheat by dragooning branches that are too high or too low to the level that they want, Mr. Thevenot will hear none of it. ''I'm about doing what the historic craftspeople who trained these plants did,'' he said.

The earliest evidence of espalier occurs in paintings in the tomb of Amenhotep II, king of ancient Egypt, circa 1400 B.C., which show fig trees trained flat against a wall in his Mesopotamian Garden. But it was the French who named it (from ''epaule,'' or ''shoulder'') and perfected the art as we know it today. Particular credit in France goes to a horticulturist monk named Father Legendre of Henonville, who is reported to have trained a pear tree into a pyramidal shape for his monastery garden in 1684.

In the 18th century, espalier swept Europe, especially France and England, as royals and their subjects alike found that it helped them to grow fruits from temperate climates. The woody filigree of espalier began to line not just the Versailles kitchen garden designed by Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie for Louis XIV, but also the walls of countless villages across the continent.

The common gardener prized it for several reasons: trained along a sunny south-facing wall, espalier has a longer growing season than free-standing trees because walls hold heat and reflect both heat and light. The plants remain relatively compact, so gardeners working in cramped spaces can enjoy the harvest of a miniature orchard; because the energy from the roots of espaliered trees have less mass to sustain, the plants flower and fruit prodigiously.

''When it comes to apples and pears, the amount of space you have is irrelevant to how much fruit you get,'' said Ryan Gainey, a landscape designer in Atlanta who has used Mr. Thevenot's trees in several of his clients' landscapes as well as at his home in Decatur, Ga. But unfortunately, Mr. Gainey added, ''the animals know exactly when they're ripe.'' Which is a common problem that successful fruit growers share.

Mr. Thevenot discourages fruit from forming on his inventory by pulling off the blossoms in the spring, which helps to keep the energy high in the body of the tree. As he treads his hog-wire allees, clipping a branch here and refastening a leader there, he came upon a shriveled, embarrassed-looking piece of fruit on the ground. ''That's an apple,'' he said, ''after taxes.''

Autumn took Mr. Thevenot back to the beginning of the espalier seasonal cycle. With the hillsides turning gold all around him on a fall afternoon, he was preparing to leave in November for his annual circuit of wholesale nurseries to pick out 600 to 700 new saplings to work with. Mr. Thevenot knows that about 25 percent of his candidates won't meet his ultimate criteria for beauty and symmetry. And he is all too familiar with their vulnerabilities to canker, mites or hailstorms, all of which can deface and kill them.

Espaliered trees are especially susceptible; damage to a single carefully cultivated branch can ruin the entire precious posture. Several of Mr. Thevenot's trees still bear scars from a hailstorm that struck in 1996. ''It just ravaged these fields,'' he grumbled.

The trees that fail to make the cut, Mr. Thevenot said, go to the burn pile over toward the riverbank. The rest stay with him for three, four or five years until, reluctantly, like a father, he has to let them go.

''Sometimes there are plants I grow so fond of that I postpone selling them until the last minute, until I am out of everything else,'' he said, '' simply because I've got a relationship with them, you know?''