Today I spent a few hours in the backyard tending to our fruit trees. Along our back retaining wall, we planted an apricot, a donut peach, and a sugar plum tree. They are a year old at this point, and I’ve been wanting to train them as an espalier.
What is an espalier?
An espalier is a plant (such as a fruit tree) that is trained to grow flat on one plane, usually against a wall, trellis, or fence instead of the usual domed tree shape. Here’s a side view of our apricot tree after we got done:
I thought I’d document step by step how I espaliered our backyard fruit trees.
Here is what I would need to pick up to set up an espalier for one tree:
2 ea. 8’ Treated Tree Stake
6 ea. 3/8 in. x 5 in. Zinc-Plated Eye Bolt with Nut
12 ea. 3/8 in. Zinc Flat Washer
3 ea. 3/16 in. x 5-1/2 in. Zinc-Plated Turnbuckle Hook/Eye
1 roll Twisted Jute Twine
100 ft. 14-Gauge Plastic-Coated Galvanized Wire
These are the tools I used to install the espalier:
Drill with 3/8 in. drill bit
I started out by measuring the tree’s distance away from the wall, and then using the point of the tree stake to mark a hole in the ground 4-5 feet away from the tree at the same distance away from the wall. I used my water hose to trickle water down into the hole for a little while to soften the ground.
I drew a line 2 feet up the tree stake from the point of the stake. Then I got on a ladder and pounded the stake into the ground with my sledgehammer. I used the level to check whether the stake was going in straight. I stopped pounding once the 2-foot line went under the ground level.
Repeat for the other side of the tree.
(This next part is cheating.)
I measured the height from the ground of the lowest branch on the tree and found the nearest grout line on the back retaining wall. I followed that grout line out behind the stakes. Then I took a long piece of scrap wood and butted one end up against the wall. I placed the level on the scrap wood to determine where corresponding height of the grout line was on the stake, then marked that height on the stake.
Because each concrete block on the wall is 8 in. high, two levels is a nice, 16 in. height for the next level of the espalier. I simply moved the scrap wood up 2 lines, marked the height on the stake, moved up another 2 lines, and then marked the final level on the stake.
I repeated the process for the other stake. Now I have 6 marks for 6 holes to drill.
Using the drill with the 3/8 in. bit, I drilled through the center of each stake at the mark that I made. I tried to keep the drill direction as horizontal as I could.
With 6 holes drilled, I pushed a 3/8 in. eye bolt through the hole, with a washer on each side of the stake, hand-tightened the nut, then finished tightening with the crescent wrench. I installed all 6 eye bolts onto the espalier posts.
Next, I took the spool of vinyl-covered wire and threaded the end through the eye bolt. I left about 6 inches of wire on the end which I then twisted around itself, using the pliers to tighten the end.
I attached the hook end of the 3/16 inch turnbuckle to the opposite eye bolt. Then I strung the guide wire from the eye bolt, behind the tree until it reached the turnbuckle. I cut the wire about 6 inches past the eye of the turnbuckle, passed the end through the eye, and then bent it back on itself. Notice that the turnbuckle ends are extended:
In order to twist the guide wire on itself without turning the turnbuckle, I used the crescent wrench to hold the turnbuckle end steady while I twisted the wire with the pliers:
When all three espalier guide wires were attached, I tightened the turnbuckles to draw the wires taut. Start with the top wire and work down. Don’t over-tighten the middle and bottom wires.
Here’s a side-view of the espalier guide wires going behind the plum tree:
To train a tree branch onto the espalier guide wire, I cut a length of twine, wrapped it around the branch, and then secured the branch loosely to the wire with the twine:
Select other branches to secure to the espalier guide wires:
Here is the apricot tree after I got done tying the branches to the espalier guide wires. This tree is so tall, I’m going to have to install a 4th level.
Perspective view of the now-espaliered backyard fruit trees, from the nearby apricot to the peach to the faraway plum:
Yes, I know I did it backwards. Ideally, you’re supposed to put the espalier guide wires in first, then plant the trees. Ideally, you would just install the eye bolts on the wall itself, with the eyes 8-12 inches away from the wall. Then you’d attach the guide wires to the eye bolts, plant the tree in front of the wires, and begin training the branches from the first year of growth.
But when I originally planted the trees last year, I wasn’t thinking of training them into espaliers. It wasn’t until last summer when the tomato plants were really pumping in the raised beds did we find that the fruit tree branches were getting in our way. So when I decided to espalier the trees, I kept kicking myself for not doing it the right way from the start.
C’est la vie.
Also, my choice of pressure treated tree stakes isn’t what people would normally use as espalier posts. For those situations where a wall isn’t available, I’ve seen people use either wooden fence posts or galvanized fence posts. To do so would have required that I dig a deep hole to sink the post in, and fill the hole with concrete so that it wouldn’t move.
I figured that would have been too much work.
Call me lazy.
Because the apricot and peach trees were spaced about 10 feet apart, I sunk one tree stake to the left of the apricot, one stake to the right of the peach, and one stake in between the 2 trees. I drilled 3 holes in the middle stake at the same level as the end stakes, and just passed the guide wire through the holes in the middle stake. I did not use any extra eye bolts or turnbuckles on the middle stake.
Call me cheap.
All in all, the installation of the espalier posts and wires took only a couple of hours. I’m pretty happy with it, and look forward to pruning, shaping, and training the trees in the years to come. Who knows? I may even do this with our citrus trees!
Have you tried espalier in your garden? Do you have any advice to give? Leave us a comment below!