Espalier Trees - Espalier in Marietta, Pennsylvania
Espalier in Marietta, Pennsylvania
Now that the
first day of spring has arrived, it is time for us at Colonial Sense to head outside to the gardens to help you decorate with colonial ideas and decorations, Let's begin with espalier, an old form of pruning used in Biblical times. The words has a French origin, derived from the Italian spalliera which means "something to rest the shoulder (spalla) against," is the process of controlling plant growth in a flat plane, usually against a fence, wall, or trellis. In Colonial times, espaliered trees were often called wall trees or wall fruit.

It was Thomas Hancock, John Hancock's uncle, who wrote to a nurseryman in England in December, 1736, "Pray send me a Catalogue of what Fruit you have that are Dwarf Trees and Espaliers. I shall want Some next Fall for a Garden I am going to layout next Spring. "His gardens, he continued, "all Lye on the South Side" of Beacon Hill, "& it is Allowed on all hands the Kingdom of England don't afford so Fine a Prospect as I have both of Land and water. Neither do I intend to Spare any Cost of Pains in making my Gardens Beautiful or Profitable."

Espalier Trees - Espaliered Free Standing Fruit Trees
Espaliered Free Standing Fruit Trees
When Thomas Hancock chose espalier fruit trees to ornament his garden as well as furnish fine fruit for his table, he was continuing a gardening skill as old as biblical times. In Pompeii trees were trained against courtyard walls. The practice was also used in Egypt where paintings of espaliered fig trees were found in tombs dating to 1400 BC. During the Middle Ages, the enclosed orchard with cherry or apple branches interlaced along the walls became the pleasure garden for the nobility and clergy of Europe. In old manuscripts, espaliered fruit trees were found inside walled castles courtyards and monastery gardens. In Europe which relished any available open land, trees were trained against flat walls which left the valuable borders open for growing herbs and vegetable. In England which Thomas Jefferson called "sunless", gardeners could ripen fruit by planting trees against sun-warmed walls and opening up their structure so they obtained more sunlight. How to prune an espalier tree became a secret skill which was passed on from one generation to another.

James Birket, a visiting Englishman, wrote in September of 1750, about Captain Godrey Malbone's estate at Newport, Rhode Island, "The Surface of the Earth before the house is a Handsome Garden with variety of wall fruits And flowers...this house & Garden is reckond the wonder of that part of the Country."

John Gardiner and David Hepburn advised gardeners in their 1804 The American Gardener, published in Washington, District of Columbia, that January was the month to "prune espalier trees."

Espalier Trees - Espaliered Pears on a Wall
Espaliered Pears on a Wall
George Washington, an earlier gardener, likewise refers to espalier hedges and wall trees in his diaries. He built the greenhouse, or orangerie, along one side of the flower garden. New fruit trees were espaliered along the greenhouse wall as well as the brick walls in both gardens. As his flower garden walks were bordered by boxwood, the kitchen garden exhibits the same trimness. Individual vegetable beds are edged with herbs and brick paths are cordoned off by apple and "pair" trees espaliered horizontally. This garden, huge enough to provide food for his own household plus innumerable streams of guests, combines "profit" with the same beauty his flower garden exhibits. Washington's total garden plan, so competent, custom designed for his own needs and desires, constantly surprised foreign visitors unprepared for such excellence.When duty required his serving as first president of the United States, he could visit Mount Vernon only fifteen times in eight years. In the two and a half tranquil years allotted him after his joyful homecoming in 1797, his careful maintenance of his estate, including his espaliers, continued. The master gardener's weekly work report for December 30, 1797, shows the "Pruning of Peach Trees & nailing them to the walls" required two man-days of work, as did "Pruning & Fastening Cherry trees on the Wall" the following week. The August 11, 1798, report shows "Dressing the wall trees," meaning the pruning, tying, training and general tidying of espaliers so they looked well-groomed.

The property of Adrian Valeck was listed for sale in Baltimore, Maryland in 1800 in the Federal Gazette "A large garden in the highest state of cultivation, laid out in numerous and convenient walks and squares bordered with espaliers, on which...the greatest variety of fruit trees, the choicest fruits from the best nurseries in this country and Europe have been attentively and successfully cultivated."

Espalier Trees - Espaliered Wall Fruit
Espaliered Wall Fruit
Bernard McMahon (1775-1816), Thomas Jefferson's gardening mentor, wrote the first comprehensive garden book in 1806, The American Gardener's Calendar, which was adapted to the climate and seasons of the United States. McMahon discusses how to prune espalier and wall trees:


As some people have not a sufficient idea of what is meant by espaliers, the following explanation, and instructions for forming them, &c., may not be unacceptable.

Espaliers are edges of fruit-trees, which are trained up regularly to a lattice or trellis of wood work, and are commonly arranged in a single row in the borders, round the boundaries of the principal divisions of the kitchen-garden; there serving a double or treble purpose, both profitable, useful, and ornamental. They produce large fine fruit plentifully, without taking up much room, and being in a close range, hedge-like, they in some degree shelter the esculent crops in the quarters; and having borders immediately under them each side, afford different aspects for different plants, and also they afford shelter in winter, forwardness to their south-border crops in spring, and shade in summer; and as to ornament and variety, what can be more delightful in spring, in the excursion of the walks, than the charming appearance which the trees make when covered with their showy bloom, differing in themselves, in those of different genera, species, and varieties; or in summer, to see the fruit of the different sorts advancing to perfection, and in autumn arrive successively to maturity? And as the trees are arranged all of an equal height, not exceeding six feet, closely furnished with branches, ranged horizontally at regular distances one above another, from the very ground upwards, the fruit hereby are exhibited to great advantage, and being low, and the branches fixed, are convenient to pull, and not liable to be blown down by wind.

An espalier has this advantage over a wall tree, that as being wholly detached, the branches have liberty to form fruit spurs on both sides, which in the wall tree cannot be effected but on one; in fact, common fruit- walls are unnecessary in the United States, except in the eastern and some of the middle States, where they are useful in forwarding to due perfection and flavor some late kinds of superior peaches, grapes, and other late fruits; but when walls are built for other purposes, and are conveniently situated, advantage ought to be taken of them for raising fruit, observing to suit the various kinds to the various aspects.

Trellises are also used occasionally for wall trees, where the wall does not admit of nailing the branches immediately against it; also for training wall trees in forcing-houses and forcing-frames, and are formed according to different degrees of taste, for use and ornament, as well as of different dimensions, from four or five to six, or in forcing-houses, to seven, eight, or ten feet high.

For common espalier fruit-trees in the open ground, a trellis is absolutely necessary, and may either be formed of common stakes or poles, or of regular joinery work, according to taste or fancy.

The cheapest, the easiest, and soonest made trellis for common espalier trees, is that formed with straight poles, being cut into proper lengths, and driving them into the ground in a range, a foot distant, all of an equal height, and then railed along the top with the same kind of poles or slips of pine or other boards, nailed down to each stake to preserve the whole straight and firm in a regular position; to which the branches of the espalier trees are to be fastened with small ozier-twigs, rope-yarn, &c., and trained along horizontally from stake to stake, as directed for the different sorts under

their proper heads.

To render the above trellis still stronger, run two or three horizontal ranges of rods or small poles along the back parts of the uprights, a foot or eighteen inches asunder, fastening them to the upright stakes either with pieces of strong wire twisted two or three times round, or by nailing them.

But when more elegant and ornamental trellises of joinery work are required in any of the departments, they are formed with regularly squared posts and rails, of good durable timber, neatly planed and framed together, fixing the main posts in the ground, ten or twelve feet asunder, with smaller ones between, ranging the horizontal railing from post to post in three or more ranges; the first being placed about a foot from the bottom, a second at top, and one or two along the middle space, and if thought convenient, may range one between each of the intermediate spaces; then fix thin slips of lath, or the like, upright to the horizontal railing, ten inches or a foot asunder; and paint the whole with oil color to render it more ornamental and durable; and in training the trees, tie their branches both to the railing of the trellis and to the upright laths, according as they extend in length on each side.

In either of the above trellises for a common espalier, five or six feet at most is a sufficient height, as, if much higher, the winds, having great power, would be very apt to loosen and displace them

The permanent trellises ought not to be made till the second or third year after planting, except the trees have had as long a time of regular and judicious training; for while they are young, it will be sufficient to drive a few short stakes into the ground on each side of the trees in a straight line, to which the branches should be fastened in a horizontal position as they are produced, in order to train them properly for the espalier; these will be sufficient for the two or three first years, for should you make the regular espalier or trellis the first year the trees are planted, many of the stakes would rot before the espalier is covered. For directions respecting the planting espalier and wall-trees, see March and October.


The following representations of the modes of training convey to the eye examples which it will be well to study:

Espalier Trees - a. The herring-bone fan. b. The irregular fan. c. The stellate fan. d. The drooping fan. e. The wavy fan. f. The horizontal, g. The horizontal, with screw-stem, h. The horizontal, with double stem. i. The vertical, with screw shoots, Last picture. The vertical, with upright shoots.
a. The herring-bone fan. b. The irregular fan. c. The stellate fan. d. The drooping fan. e. The wavy fan. f. The horizontal, g. The horizontal, with screw-stem, h. The horizontal, with double stem. i. The vertical, with screw shoots, Last picture. The vertical, with upright shoots.



Apple and pear-trees being of the spur-bearing kind, and their mode of bearing similar, one method of pruning answers for both; they producing their fruit upon short natural spurs from the sides and ends of the branches, and the same branches continue bearing for many years, increasing their quantity of fruit spurs as they gradually advance in length; let it therefore be remarked, that in the general course of pruning those trees, their branches and shoots are not to be shortened, but generally trained along horizontally to the espalier and wall at their natural length, at least as far as there is scope of room to extend them; never shortened, except on particular occasions below explained, and the whole trained four to five or six inches asunder.

Keeping therefore this in mind, look over the general branches, in which observe, that in such advancing young trees as are still in training, requiring a further supply of young wood to form the head, be careful to select and retain a proper quantity of the best placed last summer's shoots at full length, and generally a terminal shoot to each mother branch, and cut out all the superfluous and irregular ones; but in full-trained or old trees, still retaining the former trained or same individual bearing branches for many years, as long as they continue fruitful; and only examine any particular branches that appear worn out or decayed, or any that are too much crowded or very irregular, and let such now be pruned out; at the same time observe where any of the last summer's shoots are wanted to supply vacant spaces, and retain them accordingly; cutting out all the superfluous or over abundant close to the main branches; likewise, let all foreright and other irregular-placed shoots be cut away, carefully retaining the leading shoot to all the main branches where there is a scope to run them, so retaining the general branches and the necessary supply of young wood about four to five or six inches asunder, to be trained to the trellis or wall, &c., all at their full length as aforesaid; and, according as they advance in length, still continue extending them, or without shortening, at least as far as their limited space admits.

In the course of this pruning, have particular care to preserve all the natural fruit-spurs; but cut away all those formed of the remaining stumps of shorted shoots, for these rarely produce anything but a confusion of unnecessary wood-shoots every summer; and for which reason be careful, in pruning out the superfluous and irregular shoots, always to cut them off quite close from whence they originate.*

* The better way to prevent superfluous lateral shoots is to pinch them into a few buds from time to time through the summer, and prune into one or two eyes in the winter. This practice will, after some two or three years, destroy the exuberance, and form fruit-buds, instead of wood-shoots.

Then train in all the remaining proper branches and shoots at their full length, about from four to five or six inches asunder, as aforesaid, without reducing them in length either in the summer or winter pruning.

By the above practice, the shoots of branches of these trees will, about the second or third year after they are laid in, begin to produce short shoots or spurs (as they are generally termed) about an inch or two in length, some not above half an inch; and from these the fruit is produced.

But if the branches of these trees were to be shortened, it would be cutting off the very part where blossom buds or spurs first begin to appear; and instead of those fruitful parts, they would send forth a number of strong wood-shoots. This plainly shows that the shoots which were intended for fruit-bearing must not be generally shortened, for if that is practised, the trees would constantly run to wood, and never produce any tolerable crop of fruit.

If, indeed, there is a want of wood in any part of these trees, then the occasional shortening of some of the adjacent young shoots may be necessary, whereby to promote a production of laterals the ensuing summer, to furnish the vacancy.

For instance, if there is any vacant part in the tree, and two, three, or more shoots are requisite to furnish that vacancy, and only one shoot was produced in that part the preceding summer, that shoot, in such a case, being now shortened to four or five buds, if it be strong, will produce three or four lateral shoots.


This is also a proper season to prune plums and cherries, either against walls or espaliers, especially where the weather is mild.

Let it be observed in the pruning of these trees against walls or espaliers, that, like the apples and pears, they being of the spurbearing kind, producing the fruit upon short natural spurs or studs, emitted along the sides of the branches, or from two or three to many years old, so must accordingly retain the same branches many years for bearers, which must not be shortened in the course of pruning, but trained horizontally at their full length, about three or four to five or six inches asunder; also all young shoots of the last year's growth, as are now proper to be reserved in vacancies, to furnish the wall or espalier with bearing wood, must not be shortened; but every such shoot or branch must be left entire; and this should at all times be observed, which is the only certain method whereby to render the branches fruitful.

In the operation of pruning these trees, observe, as advised for the apple and pear trees, to give proper attention both in any young trees still under training, and in the fully trained older trees furnished with the requisite expansion of branches.

Observing, in the former, i.e., the young trees under training, that where further supplies of branches are required in order to form a proper expansion of bearers trained in regularity, should be careful to leave some best well-placed young shoots for that purpose, and cut out the improper and unnecessary, such as fore-right and other irregular placed growths; or also any superfluous or over-abundant shoots that may occur in particular parts of the trees, retaining the reserved proper shoots mostly at their full length, for training as above; and they will thus in from one to two or three year's growth, furnish natural fruit spurs for bearing; but generally sooner in the cherries than the plums, as some sort of cherries will probably bear fruit the same year on the young shoots now trained in: the morella in particular bears mostly on the one year old shoots. For observations thereon see November.

And in the full trained trees of the above sorts, look carefully over the general expansion; and where any occasional supply of young wood appears necessary, select and retain some best- placed proper shoots of last summer accordingly, either to furnish any present vacancy, or to train in between the main branches where it may seem expedient, in order to be advancing to a bearing state, ready to supply any apparent future occasion; but in the morella particularly, above mentioned, retain always a general supply for principal bearers: (see November :) and prune out all irregular and superabundant shoots close to the mother branches; and if casual worn-out or decayed old unfruitful branches occur, let them now be cut out, retaining young wood of proper growth, &c., to supply their place; preserving also, in all vacant spaces, a supply of the best young shoots at their natural length, as above advised, and a leading one to each branch; being careful to preserve all the short natural fruit spurs, and cut away close any remaining naked stumps of former shortened shoots: then, as soon as the tree is thus pruned, proceed to train in all the proper shoots and branches to the wall or espalier, at their full length as aforesaid, at the above mentioned distances: and all those thus treated will in two or three years' time send out many short shoots or fruit spurs, about half an inch or an inch in length; and from these spurs the fruit is always produced.

These spurs generally appear first toward the upper part, or that which was once the superior part of the one, two or three years old branches; and if shortening was to be practised, those parts would consequently be cut away where the blossom-buds would have otherwise first made their appearance. Therefore, in the course of pruning apple, pear, plum, and cherry-trees, never shorten or top the young shoots that are left for a supply of bearing wood, nor any of the bearing branches, if there is room to extend them; and they will thus all gradually form themselves into a plentiful bearing state.

But if shortening was generally practised to these kinds of fruit-trees, as is the case with many pruners, it would prove their manifest destruction in regard to preventing their fruitfulness: for in the places where fruit-buds would otherwise naturally appear, there would advance nothing but strong wood shoots; so that the trees would be continually crowded with useless and unfruitful wood.

When, however, there is at any time a supply of wood wanted, then shortening particular shoots may be proper, as observed above for the apples and pears.*

* The reader will also consult with advantage the pages of the Horticulturist, and Barry's and Thomas' Fruit Books for remarks on pruning garden and orchard trees.


I observed above, that shortening the branches of apple, pear, plum and cherry-trees, was not proper in the general course of pruning; it, however, in some particular cases, is most necessary; for which take the following hints:

For example, when the trees, for walls and espaliers particularly, are about one year old from the budding or grafting, either in the nursery, or newly planted against walls or espaliers, with their first shoot immediately from the budding or grafting, at full length, it is proper to shorten or head down these shoots near the insertion of the bud or graft, to force out lateral branches, which is called heading down the trees; but this should not be done till February or March, cutting them down to four or five eyes; which will procure a production of lateral shoots near the head of the stock from these remaining lower eyes or buds, the following summer, in order for training in accordingly, that the wall or espalier may be regularly furnished with branches from the bottom. After this, the branches are to be trained along at their full length, except it appears necessary to shorten some or all of these lateral shoots, in order that each may throw out also two or three lateral branches to furnish that part of the tree more effectually; training the said lateral shoots also at their full length; but if there appear to be still more branches wanting, some of the most convenient of these last shoots may also be shortened, to promote their producing a farther supply of lateral branches, sufficient to give the tree its proper form; for the great article in this training- pruning is to encourage and assist young wall and espalier fruit-trees in their first two or three years' growth, to produce shoots in proper places, so as to cover the wall or espalier regularly with branches from the bottom to the top.

But when the trees have acquired branches enough to effect the first proper formation of the head, they will afterwards naturally furnish further supplies to cover the wall or espalier regularly every way to the allotted extent, without any further shortening, except on particular occasions, when a vacancy happens in any part, according to the rule mentioned in the article of apples and pears.

There is one thing further to be observed in pruning apple, pear, plum, and cherry-trees; and that is, when the trees have acquired branches enough to cover the wall or espalier at the distance above mentioned, then all those young shoots of the last summer's growth, that are not wanted in vacancies to form new bearers, must be cut off quite close to the place from whence they arise, leaving no spurs but the fruit-spurs that are naturally produced, which every branch will be plentifully furnished with if the above rules are observed.

There are numerous espalier forms ranging from the very simple, free-flowing natural & informal designs to complicated formal patterns. The most common formal styles are tiered, fan, candelabra, basket weave, cordon, pinnate, palmate, or Belgiam or double lattice or diamond motif.

Espalier Trees - Blooming Espaliered Wall Fruit Tree
Blooming Espaliered Wall Fruit Tree
Today espalier is no longer a once secret, cherished skill. It can now be practiced by any competent gardener who is not shy of pruning. Espaliers once reserved for palaces and mansions can be trained in any home garden. Even the smallest garden has room for a two-dimensional dwarf tree that takes up only vertical space. Larger gardens can contain from one superb specimen of shapely grace to several trees, enabling the family to sample a select cross-section of large full-flavored fruit including those treasured by our forefathers but not adapted to commercial growing. Once the essential espalier framework is obtained, annual maintenance is simple. Only ten to fifteen minutes of spraying time will cover twelve to fifteen of these compact flat trees.

Today espaliers are so decorative that today not only fruit trees are trained but many other small trees and shrubs such as dogwoods, small magnolias, crabs, haws, cotoneaster, holly, and yew purely for their blossoms or sculptural shape. Some espalier in the time-honored traditional patterns, others in more informal free-forms.

Source: Reseach & text by Bryan Wright

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