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How To Train a Fruit Tree

How To Train a Fruit Tree

- CORDONS, FANS, ESPALIERS & MORE


Trained fruit trees are not just visually stunning, they can save precious space in your garden, create a natural screen and even produce better quality fruit. Training trees as espaliers or cordons is a skill, but it’s certainly not just for the professionals! In this guide we’ll show you how to choose the perfect tree, train it as a cordon or espalier, and look after it for years to come.

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Espalier vs Cordon: What's the best option for me?

CORDON TRAINING

ESPALIER TRAINING

The main difference between cordon and esaplier training is that cordon training involves training the tree in one upright direction on a single stem, whereas espalier training means training the tree branches outwards in a horizontal direction.

There are two main reasons why you would want to train a tree. The first is to save space and the second is to grow better quality fruits that are easier to pick.

- SAVING SPACE

If you want to save space in a smaller garden or grow more fruit per square metre, you should try training a cordon. Regular fruit trees need anything up to 4m of space between them, but cordons are much more compact and can be spaced only 60-90cm apart. You can grow them vertically (even in pots!) or at a 45 degree angle against a wall. They don’t crop as heavily as regular fruit trees, but you can still achieve uo to 10kgs per tree, which if you consider how many more you can fit into your space, is a pretty good result!

- BETTER FRUIT, EASIER TO PICK

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 and sunlight can get to the fruit, giving you a larger and earlier crop and reducing the risk of fungal disease. If you grow your cordon or espalier against a wall, the heat the wall captures during the day will keep the tree warmer and improve the quality of the fruit because the heat aids the development of natural sugars.

Like cordons, the crop won’t be as heavy as that of a 3D tree, but an espalier can still produce a lot of fruit.

CHOOSE CORDON TRAINING IF:

  • You want to grow fruit but don’t have much space in your garden
  • You want to grow an ornamental tree form in a pot
  • You want to train several fruit trees on a wall in a limited space
  • You want to grow several different varieties of fruit in a small space

CHOOSE ESPALIER TRAINING IF...

  • You are going to train an apple or pear
  • You want to train a tree against a wall or fence
  • You want your tree to create screening
  • You're looking for great quality fruit
  • You want to pick fruit at a comfortable height

Which trees are suitable for espalier training?

Espalier training is most suitable for Apples & Pears but can also be done with the following stone fruits: Peaches, Nectarines, Plums, Apricots, Damsons and Cherries. However, please bear in mind that Apple & Pear give the best results and are easier to train, for specific guidance read How To Espalier Apple Trees.

 

Your espalier tree must be spur bearing and it can also be on dwarf or semi-dwarfing rootstock. (MM106, M26, MM111 for Apples or Quince A for Pears). 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. 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 so they will pollinate each other.

 

Our experts have put together a collection of Espalier Fruit Trees so you can view all your options in one place.

WHAT IS SPUR BEARING?

Spur bearing means the tree produces fruit on short branched shoots of older wood nearer the trunk. This makes them ideal for training as you can safely prune the ends of the branches without losing fruit. Trees can be either

spur bearers, tip bearers or partial tip bearers.

Where should I position an espalier?

The easiest place to grow an espalier tree is against a wall or fence. We recommend that the space is at least 180cm tall and wide. Choose a sheltered spot where your tree will get at least 6 hours of sunlight every day 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 stuck, get in touch with our experts!

 

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.

Initial planting and training

- WHEN TO PLANT

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 your tree is in early spring before the tree has put on too much foliage or formed blossom.

 

- BUILDING A FRAMEWORK

Whether you are growing your espalier against a fence, on a wall or freestanding, you’ll need to build a framework of wires at the levels you want your espalier’s branches to grow. We recommend spacing these levels 35-45cm apart, with the first tier being 75cm from the soil. If you’re not sure how many tiers you will want, add three or four levels of wire 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 using vine eyes and a tightener to make sure the structure is strong enough.

 

- PLANTING STEP-BY-STEP

Step 1: If your tree is bare root, soak the roots in a bucket of water for about an hour before planting.

Step 2: Dig a hole 15cm away from the fence, large enough to cover all the roots.

Step 3: Add some gravel or broken crockery to the hole to help with drainage, and a sprinkling of rootgrow if you have it.

Step 4: Position the tree centrally in the hole and backfill with a mixture of compost and the extracted soil.

Step 5: Firm it in and water well. You can use a stake to support your tree.

 

- 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 espalier

- YEAR 1

In the first year, your espalier 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 untie the two side branches, lower them to the horizontal and tie them in to their new position. 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.


Which trees are suitable for cordon training?

Cordon training is suitable for Apples, Pears, Cherries & Plums. It is imperative that the tree is spurbearing and bear in mind that Apples, Pears & Plums are the most successfully trained! Learn How To Train a Victoria Plum into a cordon here or explore toher suitable varieties: Egremont Russet, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Gala or Braeburn.

WHAT IS SPUR BEARING?

Spur bearing means the tree produces fruit on short branched shoots of older wood nearer the trunk. This makes them ideal for training as you can safely prune the ends of the branches without losing fruit. Trees can be either

spur bearers, tip bearers or partial tip bearers.

Where should I position a cordon?

Firstly, you need to decide if you want to grow your cordon against a fence, a wall or as freestanding. In each case, choose a sunny, sheltered spot where your tree will receive at least 6 hours of sunlight daily in spring and summer. If you’re planning to plant more than one tree, space them 60-90cm apart, checking the requirements for that particular variety of tree. If you're stuck, get in touch with our experts!

 

If you’re training a cordon against a wall or fence, you’ll need to create a framework of strong wires to tie in the growing branches. Jump to How to build a framework.

Initial planting and training

- WHEN TO PLANT

It’s best to start with a bare root tree, but potted is fine. The easiest time to start is in early spring before the tree has put on too much foliage or formed blossom.

 

- BUILDING A FRAMEWORK

If you’re growing one or more cordons on a wall or fence, you’ll need to build a framework of horizontal supporting wires from the bottom to the top of the wall, at around 35cm apart. Allow 60-90cm width of wire for each cordon. If you’re growing your cordons 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.

 

- FREESTANDING CORDON

For these, you will need to use a long, sturdy support cane for each tree. We recommend bamboo canes of around 2.4m in height.

 

- 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

To plant cordon trees at an angle on your wall, tie in a long bamboo cane (one for each tree) to your support wires at about 45 degrees. Make sure that the scion (the part of the wood above the graft line) is above the ground and pointing upwards, to avoid the tree breaking. Plant your trees about 15cm from the wall and 60-90cm apart, tying them in firmly to the bamboo canes.

For freestanding vertical cordons, simply tie in your tree’s main stem firmly to the support cane and reduce the size of any long, thin branches (over 23cm) growing out from it.

Pruning an established cordon

Once your cordon tree is established, your pruning routine will be the same each year.

Cordons are pruned in August or early September - this is because as autumn approaches, the tree’s sap levels fall. In spring, the tree uses that sap to grow branches, so what you want to do here is remove that excess wood before it gets the chance - making it concentrate all its energy on producing flower buds instead, which lead to fruit.

Cut any side shoots that are over 23cm long, back to three leaves from where the current season’s growth starts. When the cordon has reached the top wire (if growing on a wall or fence) prune the leading shoot back to a leaf joint at the height you want. If you’re growing a freestanding cordon, prune the leading shoot to the maximum height you can comfortably pick from. Thin the fruit to one per cluster to maximise size and quality.

Thank you, and congratulations for reading all about training a fruit tree! You are now armed with the knowledge to grow a fine and striking tree in your garden.

 

If you still need more information, please get in touch with our experts by sending them an email here, or alternatively contact us via our social media pages!


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