Plant Life Balance

What the heck is espaliering?

Ideal for tight spaces, reap the bounties of clever gardening.

Espalier might be difficult to pronounce but the benefits are numerous, especially if you’re short on space. It’s the practice of training a tree (or vine or shrub) to grow across a smaller area on a vertical surface, effectively growing it flat against a lattice or across wires.

From bountifully fruiting trees to fragrant flowering screens, there are lots of advantages to espaliered trees. So we spoke to Chris England who, after espaliering a few trees as a curious gardener, now runs a wholesale espalier nursery called Merrywood Plants at Baxter on the Mornington Peninsula.

What can you espalier?

Just about anything. Fruit is very common because espaliered trees often produce large quantities of fruits. Citrus is a popular choice, but also olives, apples, pears, guavas, pomegranates, and lots of dwarf varieties for the smallest spaces.

Ornamental flowering espaliers can be terrific garden centrepieces. Camelia, Gardenia, Jasmine and the like can provide a beautiful screening or ornamental shapes with lots of fragrance and scent. Osmanthus is a hardy winter-flowering shrub, very fragrant. 

How do we do it?

Ready-made espaliered trees can be purchased from most retail nurseries. They can live in pots or eventually be planted in the ground to continue training along a wall or wires. 

But if you want to do it yourself, here’s how you would go about it:

  1. Choose a small tree with lots of lower branches.
  2. Choose a nice sunny spot with good soil – espaliered trees need lots of nutrients and sunlight.
  3. Choose what style of espalier. Formal means sticking to straight, rigid lines, informal will fill out and create a screen.
  4. Create a structure for your plant to grow along – a lattice, horizontal wires, reo mesh (the type used in concreting).
  5. Pinch the growing tips of the shoots to encourage the main branch to grow along the structure. Every 4-6 weeks during the growing months (September to March) is ideal.

How long does it take, how long will it last?

It’s a process that takes several years so it’s not for the lazy gardener. Doing more work at the beginning means better results later. You should see fruit in the second year and trees can keep fruiting for 10-20 years and longer. If you visit Versailles, it has some stunning examples of long-life espaliered fruit trees that are 200-300 hundred years old.

Any care advice?

It needs monitoring to make sure it’s growing right. The soil needs to be kept full of nutrients using liquid fertilisers like worm juice, Seasol, or compost. Then integrated pest management is best. Keep it organic, think about pest oils, minimise spraying.

Bring in good bugs like ladybirds or lacewings to eat the bad bugs – it’s great if you can get your neighbours to do it at the same time. Make sure they have some other interesting things to eat so that they don’t fly away, then generation after generation of good bugs will look after your espaliered plants.

What are the benefits?

There are heaps! Lots of fruit, lots of flowers and fragrance in the garden. They make great ornamental plants and screens. You don’t need a ladder to pick fruit or to hang an awkward bird net over a large fruit tree, and it’s much easier to care for over time because of the flat surface.

Got a question? Talk to an expert. Check our nursery finder to find your closest Plant Life Balance-accredited nursery. 

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