|Espalier is a gardening art that dates back to medieval times, when small walled gardens were popular. But today, with higher density living and the proliferation of townhouses and villas with walled in courtyards, espalier is having a resurgence.
Espalier is a French word, from the Italian spalliera, which means something to lean against. An espaliered tree leans against a wall for support, with its branches like arms outspread. Fruit and leaves can grow in abundance on the branches, while the tree takes up less room in the garden.
Espalier can not only save room, it can be very decorative, and medieval gardens featured espaliered trees in ornamental rows and formal patterns. If you want to add trees to your small garden, espalier is an elegant solution.
The ideal position for an espalier is a south facing wall, with full sun so that the wall retains warmth. However in really hot dry climates, a south facing wall will get too hot, so an east or west facing wall would be best. A north facing wall would not be suitable anywhere, especially for fruit bearing trees, as there would not be enough sunlight.
If you have an ideal position, fruit bearing trees will do very well. But you may prefer to have a more decorative tree or shrub such as a camellia or hibiscus. You can espalier many different types of tree such as holly or cedar. Dwarf varieties and shrubs are good because you don’t want to have a tree that outgrows your wall, and those with flexible branches are easier to train.
You will need to fix a trellis or support wires on the wall to give the tree somewhere to lean – remember these need to be strong enough to remain in place as the weight resting on them from the tree grows.
Prepare the soil as you would for any tree in your garden right up against the wall. Your tree will be planted about six inches from the walls but the soil preparation should not stop here.
Plant your young tree and allow it to become established before training or pruning. Start training the branches in spring when the branches are flexible and full of sap, and be sure not to break the branches you want to train as you tie them back against the wall. In dormant periods, prune the branches that will not be part of your design.
Use string or cloth strips to tie the branches into position but do not tie too tightly. Allow room for growth. Keep checking the ties to make sure they are not getting too tight.
It can take time to train and prune your tree into the shape you want, and at first you will have to keep checking to make sure it is developing to your plan. If this sounds too complex, talk to your local nursery. You can get a tree that has been prepared for espalier and this will save you a lot of time and trouble in the beginning.
Espalier is not for the timid gardener – you need to have a design in mind and be firm about training your tree to follow the plan. But if you succeed, you will have a stunning garden feature that will be a talking point for years to come.