Photos and text by Trina
Green gage plum, 6 years old
Same tree with one year's uncontrolled growth, before today's trellis installation and pruning and tying-in of branches
Same tree, a year ago, with just the beginnings of the design tied in place
Espalier is a lovely blend of art and gardening that lends itself quite well to a perfectionist, anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive approach, but I’m here to tell you that you don't have to be an uptight control-freak to be successful at it. Having experimented in the past with letting my vegetable garden be "free-range," letting things grow wherever they chose to seed themselves from the previous year's plants, and discovering that, while it's a sweet idea, it's also a complete mess, with crops being very hard to keep track of and harvest, I now aim more toward the middle of the chaos-to-order spectrum. Orderly enough to be manageable, and yet wild enough to look and feel natural. Rows don't have to be perfectly straight, nor do they have to contain only one variety of plant. It's not a factory; it's a garden.
You can take a similar approach to espalier. It's an art form, yes, so your goal is to control and shape the branches into a pre-determined design, but it's also an organic, living plant you're working with, and it might not sprout a branch exactly where you want one to be in order to achieve the design you had in mind. While you can use tricks like notching the bark just above where you want a branch to come in,
you can also leave room in the process for the tree to speak for itself, room to see what the tree will and won't do, and room to change The Plan when it starts to diverge greatly from The Reality.
Since espalier pruning and tying-in of branches happens in the summer or early fall before the branches harden off and become less malleable, the task of shaping and pruning really amounts to seeing what the tree did in a year's time, and figuring out what you can do with that. Your starting point each summer is a chaos of growth, branches going every which way, mostly in the "wrong" place, and an abundance of leaves making it nearly impossible to see where branches are, and where to even begin. Working with the tree instead of fighting it will make it a little easier and a lot more fun.
Japanese maple, at one year
Same tree at 2 years, before today’s pruning and tying-in
Same tree, after today’s pruning and tying-in
This one still has a long way to go, and the design may have to be changed a bit, both to accommodate what the tree is actually doing, and to correct for some mistakes made by the gardener.
A similarly flexible, informal approach can be taken when it comes to the support framework for espalier. Proper, traditional, rule-following espalier calls for an extensive and expensive system of heavy gauge horizontal wires strung taught with special tension bolts and other highly essential gizmos, either against a fence or wall, or if freestanding, framed in by a serious, sturdy structure. It's nice; it's fancy; it works; but it's unneccessary. I've found that a schmo-tek approach to espalier -- using metal concrete mesh that comes in 4' x 7' sheets and costs about $8 a sheet, installed with very simple hardware -- helps espalier to be that much less daunting, makes it into the kind of project I can bang out myself without needing the help of someone more construction-capable than myself, and I actually like the simple, humble look of it. Once your tree has grown in, the mesh virtually disappears anyway, being covered up by branches and leaves. It'll be the last thing people notice when they're admiring your lovely, artfully designed trees.
The two schmo-tek mesh installation methods I've used successfully, depending on whether the tree is going against a fence or the side of the house (which in my case is stucco) are:
tacking the mesh to the fence with poultry net staples, allowing the space between the horizontal 2x4s and the pickets to serve as the minimum 4" of breathing space your tree needs behind it,
and hanging the mesh from screw hooks screwed into whatever sturdy beam you can find under your eaves, bridging the distance with chain as necessary:
Espalier isn’t easy. You have to know how to recognize (and not cut off) the spurs or branches that will provide the next year’s crop, how to deal with 18 million fruit tree diseases and pests, how to anticipate a tree’s growth habit, how to encourage and discourage individual branch growth, how to tell the difference between a fruit bud and a leaf bud, how to speak in a haughty British accent, and so much more. Taking a less-rigid-than-normal approach to the design aspect is one way I’ve found to make it a little more do-able and a little less daunting. A judicious application of schmo-tek on the technical end is the other.
The one thing you definitely can’t skimp on, though, and probably the most difficult part, is patience.
More espalier photos and notes here