Training a fruit tree into an espalier takes a good dash of dedication

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Espaliered trees bring fruit down to eye level. They allow for easy picking and take advantage of small spaces.

But don’t kid yourself into thinking espaliers are any easier than regular-sized trees, said Ross Penhallegon, a horticulturist with Oregon State University’s Extension Service.

“Espalier is one of many ways to prune – or design -- a fruit tree,” he said. “It’s beautiful, it doesn’t take up a lot of room in the yard. There are a lot of reasons to do it, but it takes dedication and time. It’s like growing grapes or wisteria correctly.”

In espalier, tree branches are typically trained flat along the wires of a trellis, which may be of several types, depending on how difficult an espalier project you want to attempt. In addition to a trellis, trees can be supported by a wall, wooden fence, or deer or cattle fencing.

If the trellis will be attached to a building, consider how it will look. Even though the trellis may be removed once the tree has reached its final, rigid state, it will need to remain in place long enough to support the tree, which can be up to 10 years.

The most important aspect of growing an espaliered tree, which can be any type of fruit but is usually an apple, is pruning. Unlike an open canopy tree, Penhallegon said, an espalier must be pruned several times during the growing season in order to keep in control.

“That’s a lot of cutting,” he said. “Most people don’t know how to prune, so it’s important to do your research before beginning.”

Penhallegon offers the following instructions for the simplest way to espalier an apple tree:

  • Build a trellis by setting posts 8 feet apart and stretch 12-gauge or heavier galvanized wire between them 18 inches from the ground. At that time you can add more levels of wire, typically three, each 18 inches taller than the other. Alternatively, you can wait until the following years when it’s time to train another level to add additional wires.
  • Buy a 1- or 2-year-old tree, preferably a dwarf variety, and plant in the middle of the trellis, usually in February. Attach two supple branches, which are called laterals, to the first level of wire, one going left and one going right. Prune out the thickest branch, which is generally in the middle and called the leader, and any other branches.
  • As the season goes on, weak branches – called suckers – will grow straight up. These need to be removed regularly. If they are young enough, rub off with your thumb or, if too thick, cut them off. Also appearing will be stubbier shoots – called spurs. Leave one about every 6 inches and cut off the rest. As they begin to grow, prune the spurs down to three leaves. This is where fruit will form after two years.
  • The year after beginning the espalier, start another level by training two lateral branches along the next level of wire and cutting off any additional branches. The following year, add another level.
  • After four years, cut off all spurs along one of the branches along the bottom wire to allow new ones to form. The next year, prune off spurs on the other branch on that same wire. In subsequent years, do the same thing, working your way up each level of the espalier.

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