What is an Espalier?
An espalier (pronounced “es-PAL-yer”)is a plant that has been trained to grow in a flat plane against a wall,fence, or trellis, though the term has also been used to describe the technique of training a plant to grow this way.
The technique was invented by the ancient Romans, and further developed in Europe. This technique allowed them to take advantage of the thermal mass of south facing walls (full sun in Northern Hemisphere) by growing fruit trees against them, the heat retained by the walls protected the trees from the cold and extended the productive period of the of fruit trees.
As the technique eventually became an art form in itself, the trees became a kind of living sculpture, and many ornamental trees and plants were also used as espaliers.
The main benefit of the technique of growing espaliered trees is that they save a lot of space. You can grow a productive tree in a space that would otherwise be too narrow to be of use, or you can line up trellises in an open area, a few feet apart, running north to south so they dont shade each other, to create a very high density espalier orchard. Espaliers have also been used to create living fences. A fruit bearing fence fits in with the permaculture principle that “everything has more than one purpose or function” very nicely.
You can virtually grow any plant as an espalier, it’s just a matter of maintaining a two-dimensional form by training all growth along a flat plane and pruning away any growth that can’t be laid flat because of the direction it’s growing.
Some plants are particularly suitable as espaliers. Plants that produce many flexible lateral branches and attractive flowers, fruit, and foliage and/or bark are excellent choices for espaliers.
How to Build an Espalier Support Against a Wall
The first step to espalier a tree is to construct a support for it. The following instructions will guide you through constructing an espalier support against a wall, using readily available materials.
If you are constructing an espalier against a wall, you need a wall that receives full sun at midday.
- In the Northern Hemisphere, this is a south facing wall.
- In the Southern Hemisphere, this is a north facing wall.
As I’m located in the Southern Hemisphere (Australia), I will be using a north facing wall in the example described.
Here is a picture of my espalier support, against the north facing side of a garage wall. You can just make out the two young pear trees against the trellis.
From this overhead angle, it’s easier to see things more clearly. An espaliered Nashi pear on the left with two branches and a Williams pear with four branches on the right (they are pollinators for each other). It’s their first year, so they still have some growing to do.
You can see the brackets holding the support posts away from the wall. The support wires need to sit about 6″ to 8″ (15-20cm) away from the wall to prevent the leaves of the tree getting burnt when the wall heats up to very high temperatures under the full summer sun!
Here, I’ve highlighted the positions of the support wires in yellow, to show how the espalier support is constructed.
Star pickets come pre-drilled along their length, so the wires were strung in these pre-existing holes, roughly 1′ (30cm) apart, leaving a slightly larger space at the bottom, around 2′ (60cm).
To construct the espalier support, you will need
- 8′ (2.4m) star pickets (x2)
- Heavy duty 6-8″ galvanised right angle brackets (x2)
- Plastic safety caps for ends of star pickets (x2)
- 5mm or 6mm bolts, nuts and washers for fastening bracket to star picket (x2)
- (for brick or concrete wall) masonry anchors of some sort to fasten bracket to wall (x4 or 6)
- 2mm thick plastic coated steel wire (depends on width and number of support wires – 1 roll)
- turnbuckles (x5)
The diagram below shows how the espalier support is constructed, less the support wires.
Two of these supports need to be constructed, one on either side of the wall, and the wires strung and tensioned between them.
Construction basically consists of the following steps:
- Fasten the brackets to the wall (using masonry anchors if it sis made of brick or concrete) at the same height.
- Line up the star picket the correct distance from the wall so it lines up with the bracket, and rotate it so that the edge with the holes is facing the wall. This is so the bracket can bolt to the star picket.
- Slowly drive the star picket into the ground, aim to drive about 2′ (60cm) into the ground, but make sure you stop driving it in when a hole in the star picket lines up with the hole in the bracket.
- Bolt the bracket to the star picket, using a nut and washer or lock washer so that it doesn’t loosen.
- Put plastic safety caps at the tops of the star pickets (they have really sharp edges after you hammer them in!)
- String up wires, one at a time, starting at bottom and working upwards, tie through hole in star picket (see details below), tie to turnbuckle, then fasten turnbuckle to opposite post and lightly tension.
- When all wires have been strung, tension them all up, from the bottom ones, working upwards.
The most important thing to aim for here is a very sturdy structure. Here are a few important notes:
- Use the heaviest brackets you can, make sure they have the cross-bracing running from one end to the other, forming a closed shape like a triangle. The plain “L” shaped brackets aren’t as strong as these.
- Both the brackets sideways, not vertically. Once you add the wires and tension them up, they will be exerting a sideways force to pull the support poles inwards to wards each other. A bracket which runs horizontally is more strongly braced against a horizontal force.
- Use all the holes in your brackets to mount them on the wall. If each bracket has three, use all three. If you’re tempted to just put two in, remember, you can make the thing 30% stronger for very little more effort!
Braced bracket for extra strength, mounted horizontally and facing inwards for maximum strength. One bolt fastens the star picket to the bracket. Since the bolt occupies the hole on the star picket, the wire is fastened around the end of the bracket.
Using turnbuckles with a hook on one end makes for quick attachment, just put the hook ends into the holes in the start picket (make sure you get the largest turnbuckles that will fit in the star picket holes). Wire attached to the eyelet end of the turnbuckle using a Haywire Twist and Barrel Roll tie.
It’s simple, cross the end over each other, then twist them both around together three times to make the Haywire Twist, then bend the short end or tag out so its sits at 90 degrees to the main wire, like an “L” shape, and wrap it three times around the main wire to complete the Barrel Roll part
You will realise that you can’t attach the turnbuckle hook through the hole in the star picket where the bracket is attached. The simple solution is to simply tie a small loop of wire securely around the bracket, and fasten it to that, as shown below.
Now that the trellis is complete, you’re ready to plant the tree, and train its branches along the trellis wires, and that will all be described in an up and coming project on this site!
Please note that some of the extra details and construction tips in the Grape Vine Trellis project may helpful in the construction of this project, so please check it out here.