By Barry Fugatt
Choose a location. Most espaliers prefer a sunny location, with at least five or six hours of direct sunlight each day. A south-facing wall or fence is ideal for sun-loving fruit trees. East or west exposures will work for some plants. Avoid shady north exposures unless you’re espaliering shade-tolerant plants such as English ivy, azaleas, and yews. Be sure to select a site that drains well.
Choose a pattern. Traditional espalier design patterns include: candelabrum, cordons (horizontal tiers), fans and Belgian fence (lattices). Almost any pattern you choose will work if you observe a few simple rules. First, create the desired pattern on paper. Then sketch the full-size pattern on a fence or wall, using a piece of chalk or marker. Individual tiers of an espalier design should be approximately 20 inches apart. The tier length may vary. Eight to 12 feet is typical.
With your design sketch on a wall or fence, you are now ready to build the wire support system that will support your espalier. On a stone or brick wall, use a masonry bit to drill holes about 2 inches deep. Place a lag shield (available at hardware stores) of the appropriate length and diameter flush into the holes. Six to eight-inch long eyebolts may then be screwed into the lag shields. Eye bolts are normally placed about 20 inches apart. On a wood surface, simply screw the eyebolts into the wood.
Then thread 14 or 16-gauge wire through each eye bolt, pulling the wire tight between each bolt. The eye bolts will keep the wire tightly secure about 5 inches from the surface of the wall or fence. This space is important. It allows good air movement between the plant and the wall, which greatly reduces fungus disease problems.
Choose a plant. Virtually any plant may be espaliered. However, fruit trees are most commonly used. Their pink or white spring flowers and summer and fall clusters of ripening fruit are very ornamental. I prefer to espalier pears, particularly the old disease and insect-resistant ‘Kieffer’ variety. It’s a vigorous grower, sets lots of fruit and it doesn’t need a pollinator. Oriental pears (also called apple pears) make attractive espaliers.
Excellent apple choices include: ‘Golden Delicious,’ ‘Arkansas Black’ and ‘Gala.’ Always buy plants on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstocks.
Woody ornamental plants also may be used. Pyracantha, American Holly, Weeping Youpon Holly, Flowering Crabapple, Rose of Sharon (particularly ‘Aphrodite,’ ‘Diana,’ and ‘Helene’) are excellent choices. Southern Magnolia is another excellent espalier subject, particularly the new dwarf variety called ‘Little Gem.’
Another option is to buy a young espaliered tree or shrub from a nursery. The new cold hardy camellias such as ‘Winter’s Star’ and ‘Spring’s Promise’ make exceptional espaliers.
Whatever plant you choose, think small in the beginning. Small bare-root, mail-order plants or small 1 or 2 gallon container grown plants are ideal. Center your plant at the base of the newly constructed espalier trellis and prune off all growth that does not conform to the desired pattern. Then shape and attach spring and summer growth along the wire supports while continuing to remove unnecessary, non-conforming growth throughout the growing season.