Karl Foord, UMN Extension Educator
Espalier is a plant shaping/pruning method where plants are grown in a single plane limiting their height and width to a defined area. The area is usually defined by a permanent framework which stabilizes the plant. The espalier is developed and maintained by pruning techniques of which timing is a critical part, for a pruning cut made in early spring will likely have different results than one made in midsummer.
Espalier takes on a number of high profile roles in the landscape. It can be the focal point of the landscape design or take on lesser roles as privacy screens or backdrops. It can function as a key plant softening the appearance of walls or act as an accent or specimen plant. An accent plant has year around interest like most evergreens. A specimen plant has seasons of interest such as flowering, fruiting or attractive bark. Because the espalier technique reduces the number of leaves on a plant, the stems, bark texture, leaf shapes, flower and fruit are more exposed and emphasized. Due to its spatially defined nature, espalier makes efficient use of space and permits a greater variety of plants than if full sized plants were used.
Espalier is a gardening technique of long standing. It has been practiced in gardens of Egyptian Pharaohs, middle age monks, and French kings. One of the more famous locations where espalier is on display is at Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, France (Exhibit 1 & 2).
Mastering espalier technique involves understanding how the plant responds to pruning cuts and shape manipulation. It involves choosing the buds one wants to form the branches that will create the desired shape. At least four techniques are essential to success.
The first involves cutting and bud orientation. When a terminal bud is cut, its hormonal inhibition of buds down the stem is released and the cut stem establishes many branch point s (Exhibit 3). The idea is to make the cut above the bud facing in the direction you want the stem to grow.
The second involves knowing how to bend a branch. Branches should be bent when they are young and most supple. The best way to proceed is to attach the branch to a splint prior to the bend (Exhibit 4) and bend the branch over a few weeks time, adjusting the angle of the branch 5-10° at a time (Exhibit 5). Care should be taken to not girdle any stem with plant ties and to move them annually if necessary.
The third involves maintaining the plant within the proscribed limits by precise pruning of the branch laterals and sub-laterals (Exhibits 6 & 7). This serves to limit the length of stem growth, and encourages the development of fruiting spurs.
Fourth involves eliminating unwanted buds through the technique of rubbing. Should a bud exist in a place where a stem is not desired, the bud is removing by rubbing it off the stem (Exhibit 8).
An example of an espaliered apple (Exhibit 9) as well as many other plants can be observed at the Landscape Arboretum.
Want to know more?
This article is by necessity a very basic introduction. A very helpful book on the technique is, Espalier: Essentials of the Candelabra Pattern by Katherine Aby. Espalier can be appreciated and understood from books but, espalier techniques are truly learned and developed by practice. There will be an opportunity to observe and practice next month. Katherine will be teaching a one day class on the basics of espalier on Wednesday, June 15 to interested parties. Location will be based on # of registrants being either in South Minneapolis or closer to the Arboretum. If you are interested please contact Katherine at: Katherine@espalierservices.com.
Special thanks to Katherine Aby for the use of her illustrations. More illustrations and a more detailed discussion of techniques can be found in her book, which can be obtained on her website http://www.espalierservices.com/ .