The art and science of training trees Garden: The ancient method known as espalier brings sweet fruits and pleasing designs to home landscapes.

June 07, 1998|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The art of espaliering fruit trees goes back thousands of years. There is evidence that it was practiced by the Romans, and during the Middle Ages it was a popular method of fruit production in town and kitchen gardens. In today's smaller yards and gardens, it is again becoming a favorite way of introducing fruit, flowers and decorative elements into the landscape scheme.

Espaliers are formed by the training and careful pruning of small fruiting or ornamental flowering trees on wires strung between sturdy posts or against a wall. The overall effect is rather two- dimensional, since espaliers are seldom more than 6 to 12 inches deep, although they may spread 10 or 20 feet wide and tall.

Any trees grown on dwarfing rootstocks are all likely subjects for training.

Although early spring is the most common planting time, you can begin to train young trees at any point, as long as the wood is still pliable and green.

While the form of espalier most familiar to many readers is the utilitarian one used in 19th-century kitchen gardens ` that of an upright main trunk with lateral tiers of horizontal branches ` there is no reason to limit yourself to this style.

Peach, apricot and nectarines as well as cherry trees make delightful espaliers. These are often trained into a classic palmetto style, which resembles the ribs of an open fan.

One of the easiest types of espalier is the cordon. This consists of restricting the tree's growth to a single, diagonal trunk with fruiting nodes. Small (dwarf) pear trees take well to this, as do nearly all apples grown on very dwarf rootstocks (often designated as "patio" trees).

Eight of these could easily fit along a 20-foot stretch of sunny wall space, and if crisscrossed back upon each other would make a lovely, living latticework of flowers and fruit throughout much of the year.

Another attractive method is to select only one or two lateral branches on each side and train them as a living garden fence with the lower branches about 18 inches above the ground and the upper ones 30 inches high.

The best time to begin your espalier is in spring or early summer. Select only one or two tiers of branches to be trained each year. Make any bends moderately at one time. Even though the branches are young and flexible, it bends moderately at one time. Even though the branches are young and flexible, it is still possible to break them if pressure is applied too strongly and quickly.

If the angle is more than 90 degrees, you may have to take more than a year to coax them into their proper final position. Remember - espalier is not an art for the impatient!

Plastic trash bag ties or soft twine are good materials to tie the branches in place with. This should be done loosely, leaving the branch plenty of room to grow, and the ties should be checked at least every six months to make certain that they are not cutting into the bark.

Trees should be pruned in the winter to direct growth, as with any fruit tree. This also is done to remove dead or damaged wood, and to cut back very old fruiting spurs that have become unproductive.

Summer pruning is used to encourage the development of fruiting nodes or spurs. When the twigs that sprout off the main branches have become about as thick as a pencil, cut them back to the last three leaves. (Established spurs will not need this.) Depending on the vigor of your variety, this may have to be repeated later in the summer; however, do not prune after the end of July, because the young wood must have time to harden off before the winter.

After a year or two, the branches will have set into their new position and begun to bloom and bear fruit.

Where to start your espalier

* Select a sunny, south-facing wall if possible. East and west walls are also acceptable if they receive at least seven hours of direct sun a day. Masonry walls are the best, as they will retain the heat of the sun, help to protect the tender buds against spring frosts, hasten ripening in the fall and moderate temperatures year-round.

* Make sure there is at least 6 inches of space between the espalier and any wall for good air circulation and to allow for plant growth.

Tree Factors to Consider

* Size at maturity. Standard, full-size apples and pears end up 20 feet tall, not a convenient size for the average espalier. The best candidates are trees grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks that produce trees 70, 40 or 25 percent of a standard tree's height and width of 30 to 40 feet.

* Pollination. Are the trees self-fertile or, if not, can they cross-pollinate with each other? This factor is critical to fruit production. Some varieties of apples, such as Stayman Winesap, cannot pollinate other trees or themselves. They must have a pollinator tree nearby, such as Yates or Smokey Mountain Limbertwig to enable fruit to set.

* Blooming times. Different varieties flower at different times, so coordinating bloom time is important. As long as you are growing several varieties, there will normally be sufficient overlap. Consult your catalog, or contact the local extension agency office for information on specific trees you may want to grow.

* Development stage. Fruit trees should be young and healthy with branches or buds at the approximate height at which you want the lowest tier of branches.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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