How To Espalier Apple Trees
Espalier Apple Trees are not only beautiful - they can save space, make it easier to harvest your apples and even produce better fruit. Apple Trees work particularly well, and are the most commonly espaliered fruit trees.
Why should I train an espalier?
Espalier trees allow you to pick fruit at a comfortable height without the need for a ladder. They’re usually grown flat against a wall with two or three tiers of branches that grow outwards, but you can also grow them on wires to make a living fence. Because the branches are spread out evenly, more air can circulate around the fruit, reducing the risk of fungal disease. If you grow it against a wall, an espalier tree will also absorb heat from the wall and this will improve the fruit quality, as the more sunlight received, the better the development of the fruit’s natural sugars and colour. The size of the fruit is often better too, because the tree puts more of its energy into the fruit rather than growing lots of extra branches and leaves.
Where should I position an espalier?
The easiest place to grow an espalier apple tree is against a wall or fence. We recommend that this is at least 180cm tall and wide. Choose a sheltered spot where your tree will get at least 6 hours of sunlight daily in spring and summer. If you’re planning to plant more than one tree, space them 3.75-6m apart, checking the requirements for that particular variety of tree.
If you’re training an espalier on wires, you’ll need to make a fence with at least two levels of strong wires to tie in the growing branches. The wires are usually spaced 35-45cm apart, with the first tier 75cm from the soil.
Which other Apple Trees are suitable?
Espalier training is suitable for apples that are spur bearing and on dwarf or semi-dwarfing rootstocks MM106, M26, MM111. These rootstocks are vigorous enough for the tree to grow long branches and reach the correct height, while keeping relatively compact so you don’t have too much pruning to do. Some spur-bearing apple varieties include Bountiful, Braeburn, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Dabinett, Falstaff, Fiesta, Gala, Golden Delicious, James Grieve, Jonagold, Katy, Laxton’s Superb, Red Devil, Red Windsor, Rubinette and Spartan.
We don’t recommend training full size trees - the branches of dwarf varieties are thinner and more flexible, making the process much easier.
If you’re only planting one tree, you’ll need to make sure it’s a self fertile variety, but when planting more than one, you can mix the varieties and they will pollinate each other.
Since espalier training results in tastier fruit, we recommend using a dessert apple variety to get the full benefit of the improved flavour.
WHAT IS SPURBEARING
Trees can be either spur bearers, tip bearers or partial tip bearers according to whereabouts on the branch they produce fruit. Spur bearing trees produce fruit on older wood nearer the trunk, on short branched shoots. This makes them ideal for training as you can safely prune the ends.
Initial planting and training your espalier
- WHEN TO PLANT
It’s best to start with a bare root tree, but potted is fine. If you’re using bare root, this can be planted at any time from November to March, but potted trees can be planted at any time. The easiest time to start training an apple tree is in early spring before it has put on too much foliage or formed blossom.
- BUILDING A FRAMEWORK (WALL / FENCE)
On your fence or wall, you’ll need to build a framework of wires at the levels you want your espalier’s branches to grow. This is usually 35-45cm apart, with the first tier 75cm from the soil. If you’re not sure how many tiers you will want, add three or four just in case. If you’re growing your espalier against a fence, you can fix the wires between posts using eye bolts. If you’re using a wall, we’d suggest vine eyes and a tightener to make sure the structure is strong enough.
- PLANTING STEP-BY-STEP
If your tree is bare root, soak the roots in a bucket of water for about an hour before planting. For both angled and freestanding cordons, most parts of the planting process are the same.
Step 1: Dig a hole 15cm away from the fence, large enough to cover all the roots.
Step 2: Add some gravel or broken crockery to the hole to help with drainage, and a sprinkling of rootgrow if you have it.
Step 3: Position the tree centrally in the hole and backfill with a mixture of compost and the extracted soil.
Step 4: Firm it in and water well.
- INITITAL TRAINING
Tie in one branch of the tree on each side, at about 60 degrees from the horizontal, and use twine to secure them to the wires along their length.
Pruning an established cordon
- YEAR ONE
In the first year, your espalier apple should have two side branches 40-75cm above soil level and an upright branch. Tie these side branches in at an angle of around 60 degrees from the horizontal. Wait until mid-August, then lower the two side branches to the horizontal. In the last week of August, remove any surplus upright growth, then make a cut about a third of the way through the upright branch at the height you would like the next tier to form (usually about 45cm above the first two). This will encourage the tree to grow branches at the point of the cut.
- YEAR 2
In the second year, build the next level of the espalier in the same way. Prune in spring. The following August, form the final tier of the espalier, selecting two branches and training down to a 90-degree angle.
Only start yearly winter pruning (if necessary) once the tree has produced fruit and needs to replace its spurs. Winter pruning involves cutting away any dead, diseased or damaged parts of the tree while it is dormant. It will then put its energy into growing healthy new shoots in the spring.