Espalier* & Fruit Fences for Your Back-Yard by Jim Fellows

*pronounced Es-SPAHL-Yay

I’ve often wondered about espaliered trees, and they even figured in a short piece of fiction I once wrote. Espalier is the art of training dwarf trees to grow in a flat plane along a wall, fence, or trellis.  They create an atmosphere of mystery, wonder, and an evocation of some kind of Garden of Eden. I’ve stopped to admire them at botanical gardens and occasionally at Ballek’s nursery in East Haddam. Because we see them in famous gardens, we tend to think of them as expensive or unattainable, as something no longer possible.  As you will learn, you can easily grow an espaliered fruit tree for under $20 (under $30 if you choose a tree with four different types of apple or pear bearing branches) but you’ll need some simple hardware that might cost another $15. Or, you could just use bamboo, the way growers do. You will likely have fruit much sooner. I never bought an espaliered fruit tree from a nursery, but I did buy a very tiny birch that Nancy Ballek had pruned on dwarf rootstock that was highly contorted. Sixteen years later it is still 30” tall and about 40” wide. That demonstrates the power of dwarf rootstock. And that is the secret of espalier.

Nevertheless, it never occurred to me to create an orchard of espaliered (full size) fruit on dwarf trees growing up the side of a sunny wall. That all changed when I stumbled on a YouTube video by Valya Boutenko last month. After seeing that short introduction this is all going to change. I have plans for two fences of apple in the sun and one of mulberry in the shade.

There are three videos by her on the subject and I’ve linked them all below.  If you skip my rambling and go straight to the first video now you’ll know everything you need to get started before the armchair gardeners finish this rambling introduction.

Not only are fruit trees (such as apple and pear) the most commonly espaliered trees; they are healthier, stronger, and far better at producing fruit. The fruit is, as Botenko says, wheelchair accessible, and you could grow six different types of fruit trees in a tiny garden and throw no shade.  You can still have a vegetable garden, a sunny patio, a lawn, and a croquet game.  You could grow one or more in a container on a balcony.  All you need is six hours of sun or more per day. In short, there is a lot more out there than most of us imagine. That includes red and pink flesh apples that produce pink hard cider. Yes, you could grow those on an espaliered apple tree on a balcony in NYC. I’ve included a link she provided from an orchard in Portland, Oregon on how to graft multiple fruit varieties onto one fruit tree.  You might or might not find the orchardist amusing, but the instructions are tops.

Video #1 contains history, botany, and practical explanations. Unlike many garden videos on YouTube this one is well edited and moves right along. It includes a look at various espaliered examples, a medieval monastery, the frozen buds of non-espaliered trees in early spring, and illustrations of various espalier patterns, along with basic instructions.  You’ll also learn about Friar Legendre and a revolution in orcharding in 17th century France when his notebooks were published in 1684 as “Palmette”, named after a fan style espalier form he invented. If the link doesn’t work search Youtube for “Valya Boutenko Espalier 1”

Video #2 by Boutenko provides detailed step-by step instructions for the beginner. If the link doesn’t work, search YouTube for “Valya Boutenko Espalier 2”

Video #3 explains the ins and outs of buying dwarf rootstock, which you’ll have to wait until March to do unless you can find a whip grafted onto dwarf rootstock at this time of year. Some start with a regular tree and do a lot of pruning, but over the years you will likely regret that you didn’t use dwarf rootstock. If the link doesn’t work, search YouTube for “Valya Boutenko selecting and planting bare root stock”

Video #4 — How to graft multiple fruit varieties onto one fruit tree from One Green World (video hosted on Vimeo.)

Video #5 introduces the world of red flesh apples as seen in video four.