The Art of Espalier

The Art of Espalier

Part of Ep. 1902 Bees, Trees, & Pears Please

Jeff Epping shows us the ancient art of Espalier.  It's a great way to grow apples, pears and many other trees in a small space.

Premiere date: Apr 27, 2011

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley Ryan:
We are here at Olbrich Gardens in Madison, to learn the ancient art of espalier.  I’m with the Director of Horticulture, Jeff Epping.  Jeff, you’ve got a couple different examples of this wonderful art here at Olbrich.  Right here, there’s a living wall. 

Jeff Epping:
Yeah, this is a culinary pear, a Bartlett pear, actually that we have here in the herb garden.  But we also created a living arbor in our children’s garden.  A little different method, but they’re a lot of fun to work with. 

Shelley Ryan:
This is something that anybody can do.  But it takes-- You offer a class here, in fact, that can help us out as we’re trying to learn this. 

Jeff Epping:
We do, because there’s a little trick to kind of getting it established or started.  Then once you kind of know what you’re doing, it makes it-- It’s kind of fun.  It’s easy to do. 

Shelley Ryan:
It truly is an ancient art.  Why would somebody have come up with this? 
Jeff Epping:
Actually, they created espalier in countries that are a little bit cooler than ours.  The only way to get the fruit to ripen is to grow these plants against like a stone wall, or a brick wall that faces south or west.  It accumulates the heat.  The heat is given back off from that stone, which helps ripen the fruit. 

Shelley Ryan:
So, by spreading the fruit out along the wall, instead of coming out this way, you’re going to get more of the heat. 

Jeff Epping:
Exactly.  So they would line these up against these walls and grow them at about the same height as the wall, whatever it might be.  Yeah, that would allow them to have fresh fruit. 

Shelley Ryan:
Here, not only is it just very artistic, but it’s a great way to garden in a small space. 

Jeff Epping:
It is.  If you have a small garden where you can’t accommodate a large apple tree, pear tree, whatever, this is the perfect way to do it.  Most of us have, you know, a little bit of space to spare.  It wouldn’t have to be along a wall.  Like here, it’s actually on a structure, a small arbor that we put in for ornamental purposes, as well.  So when the foliage is on these plants, you can’t see that so much.  But then in the winter, you can, so it’s kind of fun to see both. 

Shelley Ryan:
It’s four seasons of interest that way, too, because it’s very beautiful this way.  When it leafs out, you’ve got a living fence, too. 

Jeff Epping:
Exactly. 

Shelley Ryan:
Talk me through it.  You said it’s a pear tree.  First thing, I need more than one pear tree? 

Jeff Epping:
You do, because pears need to be cross pollinated, so you’d need another variety.  I think the cross pollinator for Bartlett is Bosc.  But they list it all.  You don’t have to do a lot of research.  With the Internet these days, they figure out what it is that you’ll need.  Plums are often the same way.  Apples are self-pollinating, so you don’t have to worry about that. 

Shelley Ryan:
What do you start out with, to get something like this? 

Jeff Epping:
In our class, we just buy in small, dormant whips, so to speak.  They’re branched, small trees.  Then, of course, when you get that plant, it’s not going to be in this form, of course, right?  It’s been open-grown in a field, with branches all around, you know, up and down the plant, as well. 
So, when you go to plant it, think about, you know, how do I want it, which branches am I going to preserve to create this form. 

Shelley Ryan:
You would plant it, for instance, in this example here, plant it here.  The first thing I would do, probably, is cut the branches off the back here, because it’s going to be against my fence. 

Jeff Epping:
Correct. 

Shelley Ryan:
The first year, is that about it? 

Jeff Epping:
Well, what you want to do is establish, again, whatever form you’re going to work with, you want to establish these scaffold branches early on.  Let the plant grow to about the height you want.  Here, it’s about six feet or so.  Then we topped it, or cut the top of the plant out, which is not what we normally do. 

Shelley Ryan:
I was going to say, no. 

Jeff Epping:
But don’t get too panicked about that.  Once you do that, you’re going to stimulate more buds to break, you know, down the rest of the plant.  That gives you the opportunity, then, to select new branches, tie them to a structure that you build or maybe create with wires. 

Shelley Ryan:
Let me jump in here.  So, I don’t need to panic when I’m first creating that.  If I know I want a branch here and there isn’t one.  Once I’ve topped it off, something’s going to happen here. 

Jeff Epping:
Right, and any young plant that you prune heavily, which we’re going to be doing, to get it to train right, will force new growth.  That will give us more opportunities. 

Shelley Ryan:
So then, you also have to cut off the ones you don’t want. 

Jeff Epping:
Exactly.  You can see some old pruning wounds that have healed over for just that reason. 

Shelley Ryan:
Because they were growing this way! 

Jeff Epping:
Exactly. 

Shelley Ryan:
You’ve picked your leaders, as it’s grown.  You can’t just let them grow, you have to, like you said, train them, attach them to something. 

Jeff Epping:
Right, any growth that comes out on the plant will want to go straight up in the air.  So as we’re training them, here we have bamboo and we’ve used like a rubber tubing as our tie.  As it grows, then, we fasten it to the structure with the bamboo here. 

Shelley Ryan:
Do you leave this here forever? 

Jeff Epping:
No, once these branches harden up and get woodier, they’ll maintain that shape.  In fact, the one right here, we can probably cut and take off.  Really, the end ones at this point are the ones that we’ll keep fastening. 

Shelley Ryan:
Especially pears tend to grow up.  Mine at home is going up! 

Jeff Epping:
Right, exactly. 

Shelley Ryan:
Once we’ve kind of got our shape-- How old is this one? 

Jeff Epping:
I’d say anywhere eight years, or ten years, maybe at the most. 

Shelley Ryan:
What do we do to maintain it and to encourage fruit production? 

Jeff Epping:
Again, we want to maintain the scaffolding, so keep that in mind. 

Shelley Ryan:
Cut off what gets in the middle of something. 

Jeff Epping:
Exactly, we want to allow nice light penetration to each of what we call the fruiting spurs, where the fruit is going to form.  Right now, you can see that pretty well, because there’s flower buds. 

Shelley Ryan:
They’re getting ready. 
Jeff Epping:
They’re coming out.  Those are obviously the ones we don’t want to cut off. 

Shelley Ryan:
Let’s go at it. 

Jeff Epping:
We always sterilize.  We use Lysol, but you could use rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle, if you didn’t want to use an aerosol. 

Shelley Ryan:
Especially going from one tree to the other, so you don’t spread diseases. 

Jeff Epping:
If you ever cut through something that you know is diseased, you definitely want to spray right afterwards.  Here, I removed the water sprout, so I have a nice couple fruiting spurs in here.  Remember, if we get too many fruiting spurs, that’s never a problem, because when the fruit forms, if there’s too much fruit, just remove one or two of the fruit.  The other thing is, you don’t have to completely take off a water sprout, because that can form a fruiting spur later. 

Shelley Ryan:
In another year. 

Jeff Epping:
If we need that.  I’m just going through, then, and removing some of these guys appropriately to let light infiltrate into the rest of the plant. 

Shelley Ryan:
Because you need leaves, you need foliage.  But you need light for the fruit, as well. 

Jeff Epping:
Exactly. 

Shelley Ryan:
Then, the trick is to not get too carried away.  It’s a balance between foliage and fruit. 

Jeff Epping:
Right, and we have a lot of these water sprouts on this plant.  All these will be removed.  I might even remove some of these larger branches, now that we’re getting more of them, to space it out.  We want to keep the foliage in these zones and have a separation.  I like to take some of these guys down, even, to leave a space.  But that’s what looks neat about it, when you have these empty spaces in between the foliage and fruit. 

Shelley Ryan:
Again, here you’re doing it for artistic reasons rather than for high fruit production. 

Jeff Epping:
Exactly. 

Shelley Ryan:
Jeff, I’ll let you prune.  This is great, thank you so much. 

Jeff Epping:
Thank you. 

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