Friday, July 27, 2012

Espaliered Plants: A Special Design Solution

Fine gardening and architectural gardening techniques have been around since the alleged construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 600BC by King Nebuchadnezzar II,  and well before.  The practice of espalier, which was more functional than artistic, became prominent during Roman times and especially during the Middle Ages.  Fruit trees would be grown against walls inside courtyards so they were accessible.  During the Middle Ages they were grown inside the castle walls.  I am sure if I worked hard here, I could come up with a good Monty Python reference.

Donald Wyman, a famous horticulturist and head of the Arnold Arboretum for decades, wrote an article in Arnoldia, the publication of the Arboretum in Boston, in 1969 called Espaliered Plants .  This will provide an excellent summary of the practice, forms and plants used in the past.

The work of Espalier is really to learn how to control and manipulate the growth of plants.  

Currently, the practice of espalier is more architectural and design focused, however some of the most popular plants for espalier are still fruit trees, especially apple.  It is often a formal design element, but anyone with a sunny wall can grow a tree in this fashion.  If you have a bare wall on your terrace or have a small or enclosed garden space, this might be the perfect option to bring something special to the space.    

Rose Alee at Giverny, painted by
Claude Monet 1920-1922
 Espalier can also refer to training trees over other structures as well.  On the private estate I managed we had a 100' long wrought iron alee (a structure that covers a pathway) on which we had trained about 100 European Hornbeams (Carpinus betulus).  The plants were tied to the structure and pruned once a year to accentuate the form of the curved structure.  In the heat of summer it was always one of the coolest places to relax, a form of horticultural air conditioning.  The feel of this alee was similar to that evoked in the Monet painting above with the supported roses arching above the path with planting on the sides.

River Road Farms, a nursery in Tennessee, specializes in growing and training espaliered plants.      Spend some time on Peter Thevenot's site to appreciate the various plants and forms he uses for his work.  He trains plants in all of the formal styles and expends tremendous effort to deliver near perfect plants.  Also, you can check out his thorough article in Fine Gardening on the subject.

Trained red Japanese Maple at Stonegate Gardens
However, your garden may not be styled formally and you may also not have the time or inclination to attain this level of perfection.  The vertical space against a wall or fence can be filled with a two-dimensionally grown plant such as these two images from Stonegate Gardens Nursery.  They just require some annual pruning and shaping to keep within the confines of the space.  These are grown on a wooden trellis and just need to be unsecured and then re-attached to the support structure on your wall.  This can be in the form of a trellis, wire or metal supports to keep the plant and branches anchored.

Trained American Smokebush, Cotinus obvatus
at Stonegate Gardens
The plants you can use are only limited by your imagination, and if you start with some small plants rather than the pictured full-grown plants, the cost to experiment is minimal.

Some plants that I have worked with that make excellent espalier are:  Cotoneaster, Japanese Maple, Viburnum, Magnolia and Euonymus and Apple.

I encourage you to look around your garden for a space that could benefit from this technique.  Maybe you want a fence or a structure to separate spaces and a you would be willing to do something different.  Lot's of people have a cement or stone foundation that would look nicer if it were covered, or the side of a garage that could be brought to life.  The area doesn't have to be a confined space, it could be a space that needs vertical interest and still could have a planting bed in front.

Remember that these living structures are semi-permanent, so the materials you use to support need to be permanent.  You don't want to grow an espalier against a wooden fence that will decay in ten years, unless you add some permanent structure for support after the fence is gone.

I hope this helps you to look at your spaces with another new perspective and open your eyes to different possibilities in your landscape.


  1. At the college where I teach in Pennsylvania, there are a number of pear trees espaliered to the sides of brick buildings -- so much more interesting than ivy. They bloom in the spring and bear fruit in the fall. -Jean

  2. When we were able to visit Monet's garden at Giverny, we were blown away by the fence made of espaliered apple trees. It was April, and the fence was blooming!

  3. At the Biltmore this summer I saw a beautiful espaliered Rose of Sharon. A sight to behold! Enjoyed your interesting posting.

  4. Espalier fruit trees are fascinating but for some reason, to me, they are akin to the ancient Chinese habit of binding feet, and therefore I could not actually tether a tree like that! Just me - silly quirk!