P. Allen Smith Discusses Espaliered Fruit Trees

Source: pallensmith.com
By P. Allen Smith

Several years ago I took a trip to Mount Vernon to tape for my shows and well, just because I love the gardens there. George Washington's passion for gardening has always been an inspiration for me and many of the designs used at the Garden Home Retreat spring from his ideas. You will see as the Garden Home Retreat develops that I have planned the Garden Home Retreat to be a ferme ornée, or ornamental farm, similar to Mount Vernon.

I have always coveted the espaliered apple and pear trees at Mount Vernon so I made sure to incorporate some into the landscape plan of the Garden Home Retreat.

What I appreciate about espaliered fruit trees is that they are beautiful and useful, a living representation of the idea behind the ferme ornée.

Espalier training in the classic European styles can be traced back to techniques developed in mid-1600s by Father Legendre of Hanonville France. The problem Father Legendre faced was that the last frost of the season would kill the fruit buds. It was noted that the trees planted nearest the monastery walls always suffered less bud kill than those located out in the open. So he planted more trees near walls. Eventually he started to run into a space problem. To remedy this issue he started shearing the trees, which he discovered had the positive effect of causing the plants to produce more fruit.

The reasons for growing espaliered trees in the 1600s are still viable today. They are excellent space savers perfect for small gardens, they offer easier access for gardeners with limited mobility and because they are less susceptible to breaking branches these trees have an incredible life span. You can find espaliered apple trees that are 150 years old and still producing fruit!

As is often my blessing, once I get an idea in my head things just fall into place. So when I decided that I wanted to use espaliered fruit trees at the Garden Home Retreat, it was no surprise when I just happened upon the perfect person to supply the trees. I was walking through the Nashville Antique and Garden Show when I came across a fantastic dome shaped from pear trees. It was unbelievable. I wrote down the name of the nursery and well, the rest is history. The creator of this dome turned out to be one of the top espalier trainers in the country - Peter Thevenot with River Road Farms. During the past 14 years Peter has worked on training 1600 trees every season. And Peter has a gift for passing his talents on to others. He is a great speaker and teacher. You may have seen his work at the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, NC, The Denver Botanical Garden, and The Morton Arboretum in Chicago.

Espaliering is a fun way to express yourself in the garden. It isn't a difficult process, but it does require patience and some prep work. I asked Peter to explain how to create a simple 3 tiered cordon apple tree. You can get it started in a weekend and in a few years you will a beautiful and fruitful work of art in your garden.

12 to 14 gauge wire
1/8 to 3/16 inch eye bolts (use wall mounts on masonry)
apple tree, 1/2 to 5/8 inch caliper whip, any height, container or bare root
sharp shears
nylon hose strips
chalk or pencil
wire clippers
drill bit matched to size of eyebolt or wall mount

Choose a location near a wall that receives full sun, at least 6 hours per day, and the soil has good drainage. You will need about 7 feet of wall space to accommodate the mature size of your cordon.

Next draw a template on the wall that shows how the tree will look at maturity. The instructions for this project will create a single, main trunk with 3 horizontal tiers.

Using your ruler measure up 48" from the top of the soil. This corresponds to the height of the tree. Draw a vertical line to represent the trunk of the tree.

Now, starting again from the soil line, measure up 16 inches. This is where your first tier or branch will be. Mark the spot on your "template trunk" and then measure another 16 inches up. This is your second tier. Again mark the spot and measure up a final 16 inches to site the third tier. The idea is to give enough space between the horizontal tiers to allow a bit of the wall to show through once the tree has begun to mature and develop its spurs and leaves along the branches.

Now you are ready to measure the width of the tree. Start at the first tier mark on the "template trunk" and measure out 3 feet and 5 inches on either side. Repeat this process for the second and third tiers. Draw vertical lines across to denote the tiers.

So, what you should see after drawing your template is a single vertical line rising 48 inches up from the soil. This line will be crossed by 3 horizontal lines, 16 inches apart and 7 feet wide.

With the form established it is time to build the wire support. This step is important because the support will be your guide in developing the form and aid in the longevity of the tree. 

First attach the eyebolts or wall mounts to the wall. A bolt should be placed on the "template trunk" at ground level and where the first, second and third tiers cross. Also attach bolts at the right and left hand ends of each vertical line representing a tier.

Thread the wire through the eyebolts following the pattern drawn on the wall.

The next step is to plant the tree. Before you get started, bear in mind that the central trunk will need to be positioned right in front of your vertical wire support about 4 inches away from the wall. Also, take a look at the buds on the trunk. The first cut you will make will be just above a bud that sits about 2 inches above the first tier support wire. Ideally that bud will be at the back of the trunk, facing the wall.

Okay, so dig a hole in front of the wire that is 12 to 14 inches wide and12 to 14 inches deep. Mix half of the soil you shovel out of the hole with compost or humus to help enrich the soil and promote good drainage.

Position the apple tree whip in the hole so that the crown sits at soil level. Remember to position it 4 inches from the wall with a bud just above the first tier wire.

Back fill the hole with the soil and compost mixture watering as you go to eliminate air pockets.

With a piece of nylon hose attach the trunk to the wire somewhere below the first tier. This material works best because it breathes and expands.

Now comes the painful part, making the first cut. About 1 to 2 inches above the first tier wire, right above a bud, cut off the top of the tree.

Apple Cordon DrawingThis is going to force the plant to "break buds" or start producing stems at or near the first tier level. Once the stems have grown 5 to 6 inches, select 2 leaders and attach them to the first tier support wire and cut off the rest of the branching that is emerging below this level. 

At this point your tree will begin to look like a small case "t."

As the growing season progresses don't allow the center trunk get over 6 inches above the first tier. Nip it back as the side shoots grow longer keeping it within the 6 inch limit.

When the bottom tier branches have grown 3/4 of the way toward the end of the wire support, allow the central trunk to grow to the second tier and start the process again.

This part of the training is continued until all of the tier branching is to the 7-foot width.

As you are creating the basic shape of the tree, each of the tier branches is going to throw off shoots. Keep these shoots cut back to 4 to 5 inches long.

Allow your tree over time to break every bud to create a uniform mass of sticks projecting from the tier branches; these will turn into your fruit spurs.

Generally it takes about 4 years to create a mature 3 tiered cordon, but the tree could start producing fruit as soon as the second season.

Good to Know: Peter's Expert Advice for Espalier Training

  1. Apple trees are easier to train than pears. This is because apples are more forgiving than pears because the new stems do not harden off as fast. You can leave a new apple branch for several weeks and come back and the shoot will still be pliable. The pear will harden off faster.
  2. The best way to determine where the fruit will be is where it flowers. So wait until after the tree blooms to prune. Stop pruning 6 weeks before expected frost date.
  3. Your best tools are your hands. Espalier training is not so much about cutting as it is about bending and shaping.

River Road Farms
Decatur, TN
1-800-297-1435 or e-mail riverrd@usit.net

Open to the public for tours.