Back in 1970, when I was quite young, I went on a student tour to Europe. I got to spend several weeks in England, and one of the places we were taken to was Hampton Court Palace. I recall that I was pretty much bored by all the rooms and history, but the gardens really enthralled me, the Great Vine and the Great Wisteria really caught my imagination. In the walled kitchen gardens, there were fruit trees espaliered against the garden walls, and I seem to recall the guide telling us that some of them were hundreds of years old. Don’t quote me on this, actually, because it WAS almost 40 years ago that I had this experience.
Anyway, I do remember the beautifully managed and sculptured trees, trained so flat against the protective stone walls. Over the years I have seen other espaliers in other places, and that method of fruit production always interested me.
When Jim and I decided we wanted to plant some apple and pear trees, we were looking around the place for a site, and I mentioned that I had always wanted to try espalier. Jim agreed that this method of training fruit trees had interested him as well, and we had the perfect place along the long driveway back to the barn to try our hands at it.
So, we went off to the internet to get some information on how one goes about establishing espalier fruit trees. We found an article by Ron Wade of the Royal Horticultural Society, “The Gentle Art of Espalier” from Kitchen Gardener Magazine. I would love to include a link to this article, because it was extremely complete and informative, but apparently it is no longer available on the web. At least I can’t find it. I apologize that it isn’t available.
We ordered 5 apples and 2 pears, all dwarfs as was recommended in the article, from J.E. Miller nurseries, and planted them. That was back in 2001, and now our little trees are fairly well established. This is a view of our row of espaliered trees taken a couple of days ago.
As you can see, it is all quite bushy and all the trees have numerous sun sprouts covering them. This is actually not ideal, as part of the deal with espalier is that you are supposed to keep the trees trained and in control. Every year, I tell myself that I am going to get out there every week and keep the sprouts from getting out of control, but so far that promise has not been kept very well.
Last year I didn’t prune them back at all, and wound up trimming them this spring while they were blooming because I wasn’t sure where the fruit buds were going to occur and I didn’t want to risk cutting them (and the entire crop) off.
Anyway, I got down to work and did some remedial pruning on them yesterday afternoon. This is how the little pear tree looked before I began working on it.
There is a lot of overgrowth on this tree. It seems to have no lack of energy for growing, and I have to keep after this one assiduously to keep it from getting this badly overgrown. I began at the right side, and started cutting off all the extra sprouts. The espalier instructions we are following tell you to cut sprouts like this back to one or two leaves. So that is what I did. I also kept a lookout for unnecessary branches, ones that the tree sends straight up from the branches that are called sun sprouts.
Bear in mind that this tree was pruned back to the small branches back in April, and had absolutely no vertical growth on it at that time. In three months, it has put on all this growth.
Here are a couple of pictures that I took of one area of this tree where you can sort of follow my decision making process regarding pruning. On the left is the before picture, and on the right is the after picture of the same area.
When you look closely at the “before” picture, you can see that there is a definite color change in the bark on the sprouts where they “took off” to grow tall this summer. You can also see that there were some sprouts that I chose to eliminate completely.
When I was done, and had tied the branches to the support wire, the whole tree looked like this:
One of the beauties of espalier is that when the trees are properly managed, there is plenty of air circulation around and through the tree. This helps control mildew. It also makes it extremely easy to look for insect pests, since the tree is right down at your level. Unfortunately, it also makes it easy for the damn squirrels to get at the fruit, and this pear tree, which used to have a crop of several dozen pears, now only has two pears on it, thanks to the pesky little tree rats.
You may be wondering about the gap between this pear and the apple behind it. This gap is there because the pear that was planted there (a Bartlett) was not particularly resistant to disease. It got infected with fire blight, which I tried to control by pruning off the diseased sections. Ultimately, the infection was not deterred by this, and in short order it got transferred to the next apple along the line. We could envision losing our entire espalier orchard to fire blight, so we did the only thing possible. We removed the pear tree and burned it.
The infected apple we tried to save by pruning it all the way back to where there was only one side branch (cordon) and the trunk leading up to it. That appeared to work; at least we have not noticed another recurrence of fire blight. Last year, it put up a new leader and a new lower cordon branch, which I trained. Eventually, the leader put out a side branch as well, and I trained the left side of the upper cordon. All that growth happened last year, and this spring I was hoping hard for a branch to form for the right cordon. When I pruned it in the spring, I saw a tiny sprout in an appropriate place, and so I talked nicely to the tree, and pruned back a lot of the extraneous growth in hopes that that shoot would grow.
I also removed most of the apples it set so the tree could put all its energy into growing branches. When I addressed the espalier row yesterday, this is how the little tree had responded to my earlier work.
Look at that nice long, tall branch at the center right! I cut back all the sun sprouts to the suggested level, and trained the new branch to the wire. When I was done, the little tree looked like this:
It won’t take it long for all those leaves to turn themselves toward the sun. I imagine the tree will start making some side branches along that cordon as well.
For comparison, this is the Granny Smith apple (before pruning) that is a couple of places up the line from this tree. She never had the fire blight bacteria, and so she never had to go through the kind of whack job that the apple above ( a Lodi) went through. She does have a pretty bad infection of cedar apple rust, although it doesn’t seem to be affecting production particularly. I have no hopes of controlling the rust, since the whole region is well supplied with cedars. (the books say that you must remove all cedars within a quarter of a mile of your apples to completely control cedar apple rust. I don’t think my neighbors would appreciate me cutting down all their cedars!) Hopefully, we will be able to have some of these apples if the squirrel doesn’t mind.
It took a couple of hours, but after I was done the row of trees looked like this.
Now, if i can just manage to get out there and pinch back the sprouts before they get more than two to six leaves on them the way the man says I ought to!