Espaliers: Age Old Art with Modern Application

by  Ed Laivo  ‘Ed’Able Solutions

by Ed Laivo
‘Ed’Able Solutions

Photo courtesy of Mary Fisher.

There are many challenges to the future of home growing fruit trees. The reasons have nothing to do with the desire or demand; both are high. Today most all of the novelty varieties of fruit are grown by the home gardener. With lots sizes getting smaller, the cost of water going up and the introduction of a new pest or disease almost yearly, it is no wonder that the desire to grow your own fruit in the future could be in jeopardy.

Photo courtesy of Mary Fisher.

Espaliering fruit trees traces back to ancient Rome. Developing slowing through the centuries it gradually becomes the art form that we know today. But during the Roman times, espalier was not applied as an art form but rather a vertical pruning application that allowed for more fruit trees to be grown in less space inside walled gardens

Today we are faced with a number of challenges to the future home growing of fruit trees. Space, of course, is a primary concern along with the cost of water, but pests and disease controls may be the biggest concern of all. Espaliered fruit trees in the home garden may offer the best advantage going forward to address all of these concerns.  

For space saving the advantage is obvious, but the size control that is imposed on the espalier also means less water is used for the smaller tree.

Photo courtesy of Mary Fisher.

One of the most important advantages of espalier is the ease of using barrier or covering techniques. Tests have shown that simply covering a peach or nectarine during the bloom and leafing period will cut the percentage of peach leaf curl by as much as 60%. This same covering can be applied to keep the Spotted Wing Drosophila off cherries when applied at fruit set. In both these examples, the maintenance is the covering, eliminating the need for the less dependable spraying.

Peach Tree with Peaches on Last Year’s Growth. Photo courtesy of Chuck Ingels of UC Cooperative Extension.

Pest and disease problems continue to evolve with new varieties of both being discovered regularly. The means to control insects like the Brown marmorated stink bug and the Asian Citrus psyllid have been limited to controversial toxic chemicals. With diseases like Huang Long-Bing (citrus greening) and the ever-growing threat from insects like the Japanese Beetle, consumers are sure to move away from the home growing of fruit trees without being exposed to and trained in, alternatives to traditional fruit tree growing methods.  

Continuing research is being done with espaliered planting techniques along with covering techniques. Different fabrics are being tested to confirm their ability to reflect heat and allow heat to escape. In some cases, a permanent covering may be required to protect plants like citrus from Asian Citrus Psyllid and the Huang Long-Bing disease until a resolution to the problem is found. This is all still being explored but early research suggests great possibilities for more aggressive protections that require less or no chemicals. But the use of espaliers in the landscape has to be impressed NOW!

Apple Tree with Spur. Photo courtesy of Chuck Ingels of UC Cooperative Extension.

The best example of this is with peaches and nectarines; these are not varieties of fruit most often recommended for espalier. But in fact, they can be espaliered and are somewhat easy to maintain as long as pruning is a part of the regular maintenance.

Peach and nectarines differ from apples and pears in that the fruit is set on last years growth, where apples and pears are most often produced on spurs that can last for many years producing fruit.

The peach must be pruned during the summer to both maintain its vertical growth and to renew the fruiting wood for next year. This means that some large limbs are removed each year to allow for plenty of room for the younger wood to get established.

Before pruning. Photo courtesy of Chuck Ingels of UC Cooperative Extension.

After pruning. Photo courtesy of Chuck Ingels of UC Cooperative Extension.

Turnbuckle. Photo courtesy of Chuck Ingels of UC Cooperative Extension.

With any espalier, a trellis system must be established to fix the tree to. When selecting a location for the system always make sure that it is established at least 2 feet from any structure, fence or building that may require maintenance in the future. Established too close to existing structure would require damaging your plant to do the maintenance, painting or repairs.

Trellis system. Photo courtesy of Chuck Ingels of UC Cooperative Extension.

The posts used to construct your trellis system may be treated wood or galvanized cyclone fencing posts. The consideration should be that the system could be in place for many years. The material that is used should be suited to the environment in which it is used. The wire should be 12 to 14 gauge with crimping clamps for connecting to a turnbuckle.

All Varieties of fruit can be espaliered. The easiest pattern to use is what is referred to as a Fan-Shaped espalier. This is the easiest of all the recommended methods. This method can be applied to Citrus, Persimmons, Pomegranates, Figs, Cherries, Plums, and all other fruit varieties.  

Espaliered peach. Photo courtesy of Chuck Ingels of UC Cooperative Extension.

Covered espaliered peach. Photo courtesy of Chuck Ingels of UC Cooperative Extension.

Ed Laivo has over 40 years of extensive varied experience in plant production, nursery management, sales, and marketing at both the retail and wholesale level. Ed is a fruit tree and edible landscaping specialist with a focus on gardening using less water. He has been involved with the introduction or reintroduction of many popular varieties of fruits including figs, Pomegranates, and Blueberry varieties to the home gardener. Introducing techniques to better adapt these to the backyard grower. More recently Ed has been working on developing varied Best Management Practices (BMP) for insect and disease prevention using espalier and covering techniques.

He has been a frequent guest on numerous TV and radio shows as well as a popular writer, contributing insightful articles on home growing fruit to many popular gardening periodicals. While with the Dave Wilson Nursery Ed produced the nationally recognized “Backyard Orchard Culture” High density pruning and planting of fruit trees.  He is a contributing editor of “Sunset Garden Book” and the popular UC publication #3485 “The Home Orchard”. Ed has extensive e-commerce nursery experience beginning as far back as 2000.

Ed has been a member of the California Landscape Contractors, East Bay board of directors and has sat on the Ecolandscape California’s advisory committee. He lends his time as a consultant and lecturer to nursery businesses, professional groups, Master Gardeners groups, and Universities.

Ed left his position as Sales and Marketing Director for Four Winds Growers to start his own business ‘Ed’Able Solutions, a consulting market management company, specializing in plant access and distribution for e-commerce nursery sales.