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Grow: Primers & Projects

Starting an Espalier

Through careful training, an espalier creates a tiered, "two-dimensional" tree.

This dramatic gardening technique requiring years of care and patience begins with a single radical step.

Reporting from "Victory Garden South," at the 14,000-acre Calloway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia, garden correspondent Lee May talked with horticulture director Jim McDaniel about the art of the espalier, and how you can start one on your own for very little money.

The espalier (pronounced es-PAL-yay) is a centuries-old tree-growing technique that calls on a gardener's patience and loving care to create a strikingly beautiful — and space-saving — effect for a garden or patio space. Through careful training and pruning of the branches along a wall, fence or trellis, the technique produces a tiered, essentially "two-dimensional" tree whose visual impact derives from a formal symmetry achieved. It is especially ideal for fruit trees such as apples or pears, though equal success can be had with a variety of other varieties of tree and shrub. And beyond its beauty, for small garden areas it serves the added purpose of economy of space.

Lee and Jim McDaniel
Horticulture director Jim McDaniel shows Lee a five-tiered golden delicious apple tree.

Down in Georgia, Jim showed Lee a pre-trained golden delicious apple tree espalier he purchased for the garden. Jim estimated the tree is between 6 and 8 years old, during which time it had been nurtured to an impressive height of five tiers. But while planting an espalier from a container is just as easy as transplanting any other young tree, the price tag can be prohibitive for many interested gardeners — up to $1,000 for a nice specimen well on its way.

Another, much cheaper, option for the self-motivated gardener is to start an espalier yourself from a fruit-tree sapling. To demonstrate, Jim bought a young golden delicious from his local garden center for about $15. Whether you opt for a fruit tree, or magnolia, or even a shrub of some description, an expert at your local garden center can help you select a cultivar that's well suited to become an espalier. And having purchased your tree, all you'll need is a little know-how.

cutting off the top
To start your own espalier, take your young tree and cut off the top about 18 inches above the base, leaving just the trunk.

Once you have your young tree, to get started, you take the seemingly brutal first step of cutting off the top about 18 inches above the base, leaving just the slender trunk. Next, you prepare the tree for new bud initiation. To do this, find a pair of buds that are on directly opposite sides of the trunk. With a sharp blade, cut a light, wedge-shaped notch just above both buds. The purpose of these notches is to inhibit the flow of nutrients and energy further up the tree, promoting growth through the two buds. Over the next few months, you should begin to see that one of the two new branches is stronger: this is the one you want to select as your new central leader, or trunk, from which you will gradually train, using the same method, all the lateral branches of the espalier's tiers. As Jim says, what that means is that you're basically starting from scratch.

So why go to such extreme measures when you already have a strong central trunk to start with? The answer is control. You want to be able to exert careful control over the growth of the central leader from the very beginning. In turn this allows you to closely manage the space intervals between lateral tiers that are vital to create the signature symmetrical shape of your espalier. Without this radical first step, as Jim explains, you would be relying on the whims of nature to determine the position and spacing of the lateral buds — a perfectly good method for Mother Nature, but not ideal for starting an espalier.

cutting the base
Prepare for bud initiation by finding a pair of buds that are opposite each other and cutting a light, wedge-shaped notch above each bud.

What follows from here requires mostly patience and a fair bit of time. But with any luck your result will be one of the most impressive visual achievements the craft of gardening has to offer.

For more information on growing and caring for espaliers, including advice on the later stages of the technique, see:

For more information on resources used on the show, visit our Resource Directory

This segment appears in show #2801.

Published August 31, 2007