Espalier (pronounced ess-PAL-yay or ess-PAL-yer) is a training technique used to grow plants flat against a wall or fence. “Isn’t that unnatural?” you ask. Not so much, really. Plants can naturally take almost any shape, which is why espalier works. Espaliered plants form living fences that also serve as a work of art, and the technique is particularly well-suited for gardeners with small spaces.

Two Espalier along a wall

The espalier on the left is established, while the one on the right is just getting started.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Espalier fan design

This new espaliered fruit tree is being trained in a fan design.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Espalier tying

Use eye screws and twist ties to manipulate camellia branches.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Espaliered apple tree

It’s easy to pick fruit from this espaliered apple tree growing in a half whiskey barrel.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

What You Need To Know

  • Espalier is a long and labor-intensive process, so it’s not for the novice gardener. You also must choose the right plant – and then stick with it.
  • Woody plants (trees and shrubs) are espaliered. Fruit trees (like apples and pears) are often used, but there are many more woody plants that are suitable as well.
  • There are several common espalier styles, including fans, grids or weaves, candelabra, and tiered or French cross styles. (Fan shapes are relatively easy to make.) Or choose a more natural shape with curving lines.

What You Need To Grow

  • A flat, blank wall or a fence.
  • Appropriate hardware. For wooden walls, use eye screws. For masonry walls, you’ll need to insert plastic plugs, as well as a carbide drill to insert the plugs. You may also need U-bolts. (For masonry, an easier alternative is to create a wooden or wire framework and place it against the wall.)
  • Ties. I prefer twist ties, but rubber bands can be used. (Rubber bands freeze and crack more easily during winter, though.) Wire or large staples can also be used, but they’re harder to work with.
  • The determination to finish the project.

What You Don’t Need

  • A lot of space.
  • A lot of imagination, since espalier styles are pretty standard.

How To Do It

  1. Select the right plant. Fruit trees were some of the first espaliers, and this tradition continues. Use a dwarf cultivar, which will be easier to train, and do some research on the plant to learn how it produces fruit. You’ll want to know whether the plant needs a pollinator, for instance, or if it can withstand lots of pruning and still produce fruit. Slow-growing plants are easier to espalier, but it takes longer to see results. Large plants need a lot of room, and fast-growing plants and vines require more maintenance. That said, be sure that the plant you choose is right for the area. (Don’t put a camellia on a south-facing wall, for instance.)

    When it’s time to purchase the plant, choose a young one without much branching. It’s easier to espalier small, young plants because it requires less effort to manipulate them. Sometimes, plants are available on trellises, so the beginning work has already been done for you. (These plants may not be in the style you want, though, and it’s difficult to change espaliered styles on an established plant.)
  2. Depending on the style chosen, make a light sketch of the design directly on your wall, which will provide you with guidelines later. Alternatively, you can build a wire or wooden framework to support the plant. (It’s easier to set this up before or at planting.)
  3. Begin the process. Place the plant 6-12 inches from the wall or fence, but don’t start the espalier training at this time. Allow the plant to recover from the transplanting process first. This typically takes two to three months, depending on the species and time of year planted.

    Do the majority of pruning every year in late winter or early spring, while the plant is dormant. Remove branches that grow in the opposite direction from your plans. (In other words, if you’re creating a fan with five main branches, prune away the sixth and seventh main branches.) Redirect growth by pruning to buds that face the direction you want the plant to grow. Be ruthless and remove branches that absolutely refuse to acquiesce to your ideas, such as those that want to grow out from the wall rather than alongside it. Small branches can be removed almost anytime during the year, as long as you don’t remove too much. The time of year to avoid pruning is late summer and early fall.
  4. Continue the process. Branches are easiest to manipulate while they’re young and soft, which usually occurs in spring and early summer. Begin to shape branches in spring by moving them gently into place and tying them there. These will continue to grow throughout spring and summer, so they’ll have to be readjusted during this high-growth period. Bring branches into alignment slowly (bend them, don’t break them) by using additional eye hooks. Keep in mind that pruning redirects growth significantly, and you don’t want to cut off the end of a branch until it’s as long as you need it to be. (Removing the tip of a branch forces side branches to grow.)

    Check the twist ties periodically, and loosen or remove them promptly as necessary. It’s easy to forget about or lose the ties in foliage, and then the branch grows over them. Although this won’t kill the plant, it’s not good for it, either.
  5. Enjoy the end result – although you’re never really finished with an espalier, since the plant continues to grow. But all ties can eventually be removed, and then minor pruning to keep the plant inbounds is needed only once or twice a year.

Espaliered plants are beautiful additions to any home. They’re not easy to create, but they are a constant source of pride for the proficient gardener.