The art of espaliered fruit trees has been practiced in Europe for centuries. Most would agree they are a stunning feature; a beautiful and practical work of art. Not only does it save space in your garden, but there are many other benefits to this amazing design.

Most people grow their fruit trees on the lawn or beside the vegetable garden.  This works fine until one day the trees bigger.  Now the fruit trees are shading out the vegetable garden.  Annoying as it may be, the best fruits are inevitably at the top of the tree and are out of reach.

With espaliered design, the fruit trees are planted along the walls and fences. The difference is astounding. Firstly, the vegetable garden can enjoy full sun. Secondly, the kids have more space to play. Finally, the fruit is produced low to the ground and is therefore easier to harvest (and there is no need for ladders or picking devices). Best of all, espaliered trees produce more fruit and are longer lived.

The Benefits

  • Saves space in your backyard – even a bare wall or fence can be used to grow fruits.
  • More fruit is produced compared to a regular fruit tree.
  • Easy to harvest the fruit, which often hangs much closer to the ground.
  • Wheelchair accessible

Espaliered Fig Fruit Tree
Figs are one of the best fruit trees for espalier.

Building the Structure

Ensure to select a wall or fence gets at least 6 hours of sunlight per day. Install the posts and wiring system using eye screws, and thick wires that can be tightened securely with turnbuckles. The wires must be tight. Each wire should be at least 400mm apart to ensure light can penetrate to each branch. Leave 300mm between the wires and the wall. This allows for good airflow and prevents the tree scraping on the wall.

Mulberry fruit tree made into an espalier
Mulberry trees are a great choice for espaliered design.

Planting the Tree

Plant the fruit tree at least 6 inches away from the wall. Take a step back and look at the position of the branches. Start to think how it can be trimmed to fit on a 2 dimensional plane. The idea is to create flat growth. Branches that stick out or don’t fit the desired shape are pruned as they appear. Remove all the branches that are not able to be trained across the wires. In some cases this means pruning the tree back to a single vertical stem (this is called the ‘central leader’) and waiting for appropriate side branches to emerge.

Correct Espalier Technique

The branches are tied gently to the wire. Any flexible material can be used, including stockings, pieces of cloth, or flexible plant tape. The plant is encouraged to grow along the wire; not forced. Tying it back too tightly only restricts movement and growth. It is better to allow some movement so the branches can sway gently with the breeze.

Training a Fruit Tree Espalier Closeup Detail
The central leader is cut 5cm above the wire. This encourages horizontal side branches to form. The top bud will grow up towards the next wire. The buds immediately below the wire are used to fill out the wire.

Filling out the Wires

Continue to fill out the wires one by one, until you reach the top wire. When the horizontal branches reach the end of the wires, prune them off and they will stop growing.

Training Tips for a Fruitful Season

Vertical shoots that appear along the horizontal branches are trimmed back. However, be sure to leave a little 4cm long piece as a ‘fruiting spur’. This is where the fruit forms. Therefore, you want as many fruiting spurs as possible to maximise fruit production. Most of the pruning should be done in winter when the tree is resting, or when fruiting has ceased. This is the perfect opportunity to prune the tree to the desired shape.

Fruit Trees that Can Be Espaliered

  • Apples
  • Cherries
  • Feijoa
  • Figs
  • Grapes
  • Mangos
  • Mulberries
  • Olives
  • Pomegranate
  • Stone fruit
  • And many more…

Citrus Fruit Tree Espalier
These lime and orange trees are a great way to bring life to a sunny wall.

Living Life on the Edge

Espaliered trees are happier and healthier trees. This is due to more weight distributed on the trunk. As a consequence, there is less weight on the fruiting branches which are supported by the wires. The wall or fence provides protection from strong winds. People are often surprised to learn that espaliered trees can live for up to twice as long ‘on the edge’. A well-trained espalier will be more productive and can remain fruitful for well over a hundred years. Furthermore, espaliered fruit trees are aesthetically pleasing and provide a great talking point.