The fine art of espalier

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For me, nothing is more quintessentially French gardening than the art of espaliering fruit trees. Combining form and function, aesthetics with micromanagement--in short, fiddling with fruit trees to make them as productive and beautiful as possible.

What is an espalier? It is any tree or shrub pruned and formed (trained) to an unnatural but aesthetically pleasing form. An espalier can be free-standing or trained against a wall (the French would say palissé). Espalier differs from topiary in that in espalier forms the skeleton of the tree, while topiary only forms the silhouette by pruning alone. Espalier is traditionally practiced for fruit trees, although some ornamental species, such as magnolia and witchhazel, can adapt to the practice as well.

While I am no fan of foundation shrubs pruned into restricted gumdrops, I find espaliered plants as graceful as those shorn-off yews are clumsy. Espaliers can take scores, even hundreds, of different forms that adapt them to different aesthetic and functional purposes. But not only that, the practice of espalier has numerous benefits for the fruit tree.

Benefits of espalier. First of all, espaliers save space. An espaliered fruit tree provides loads of fruit in a fraction of the volume of a natural tree. In France, a culture as in love with profusion and variety as I am, this was part of the motivation for the development of espalier techniques. Suddenly, you could grow a hundred different varieties where formerly you had room only for fifteen or twenty.

Second, an espaliered tree bears earlier than a natural tree, bears much more heavily (in spite of the reduced number of branches), and bears for a longer time. A well-trained espalier often remains fruitful for over a hundred years. The reason for these three phenomena is the same in each case. An espaliered tree is pruned and trained so that all of its energies are concentrated in the production of fruit-bearing wood. Once the skeleton or 'chassis' of the tree is established, all the gardener's efforts focus on the development of vital, healthy fruiting wood.

Third, an espaliered fruit tree is naturally healthier than a natural tree. Air circulation through the tree is greatly enhanced by the practice, greatly diminishing the incidence of bacterial and fungal diseases without ever laying hold of the sprayer. Second, the frequent attentions of the gardener required to maintain the espalier mean that he or she spots problems early on and applies appropriate interventions more promptly.

An espaliered fruit tree is much easier and faster to harvest. Likewise, any necessary treatments can be applied more quickly and easily, and with a lesser volume of spray than on a natural tree.

Finally, the interesting part, from an aesthetic point of view. An espaliered fruit tree becomes a piece of landscape sculpture. It is beautiful in all seasons of the year: in winter, when the geometry of the skeletal structure is most apparent; in spring, when that same structure is accentuated with drifts of blossom; and in summer and fall, when the espalier is ornamented with developing and ripening fruit.

The art of espalier also allows you to solve vexing landscape problems in interesting ways. For instance, no prettier enhancement to a tall, bare house wall exists than to train an espaliered fruit tree against it. Even if the wall has windows, you can choose a form that artfully frames them. And best of all, horizontal space is not an issue, as the espalier will cling flat against the wall. At the same time, an espalier will not harm the wall of your house as will many climbing plants with holdfasts.

Espaliered fruit trees can also be used as elegant screens and fences. Free-standing forms make incredibly beautiful vertical accents in any garden--living sculptures that provide not only a feast for the eyes, but for the tongue and tummy as well.

Needless to say, developing espaliered trees is not at the top of the list of low-maintenance landscape ideas. But believe me, it is a great deal of fun. In fact, once you get started, you may find that you become passioné (impassioned) by this gentle art. And in the process, you will gain an understanding of what makes fruit trees tick that you would never achieve in a lifetime of "normal" pruning.

In France, you can buy already-started espaliers at any nursery, albeit in a limited variety of forms. However, nurseries offering the same in the U.S. are almost non-existent. So you'll likely have to start from scratch, with a one year whip, just the way any real espalier artist would. In Part II of this series, I'll introduce you to some basic espalier forms and take you through the steps necessary to get them started.