A Leafy Wall of Fruit. Save Space, Increase Yields, and Extend the Growing Season with Espalier Fruit Trees
Espalier is the ancient practice of training plants – typically trees, shrubs, or vines – against a two-dimensional surface such as a wall or trellis. The result is a compact, two-dimensional plant that conserves space and produces consistent and easily managed fruit.
One of the most significant advantages of espalier fruit trees is that they conserve a tonne of space. A typical fruit tree with a 10-foot radius would have a footprint close to 314 square feet. The same espalier tree, trained to grow 10-feet on either side of its trunk would only occupy 20 square feet! Yes, espalier trees tend to be smaller, but this technique also allows you to fit multiple varieties in your yard while maintaining plenty of open space.
Training fruit trees along the fences of my backyard allowed me to plant more than a dozen different varieties in a 33 by 50-foot space.
As one can imagine, picking a 2-dimensional fruit tree is quite easy – working your way horizontally branch by branch. It’s also relatively easy to maintain the height of a trained tree so you can keep it as tall or as short as you’d like. With a clear view of all the fruit, harvesting the fruit from a well-trained tree takes minutes.
Increased Yield and Quality
Though a smaller espaliered fruit tree may produce less fruit overall, they will punch above its weight on average. Training branches to grow horizontally encourages fruiting spurs – especially on apple trees – and the open-pruning structure ensures that fruit gets plenty of sunlight and ripens fully.
In a cold climate like mine, the most significant advantage of training espalier fruit trees is that you can create microclimates by training plants against a South or West facing wall or fence. Sometimes the thermal mass of a wall will raise the temperature by a few degrees Celcius – this can be the difference between USDA growing zones. An article by Low Tech Magazine describes this effect beautifully in an article titles Fruit Wall: Farming in the 1600s.
By planting fruit trees close to a specially built wall with high thermal mass and southern exposure, a microclimate is created that allows the cultivation of Mediterranean fruits in temperate climates, such as those of Northern France, England, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The fruit wall reflects sunlight during the day, improving growing conditions. It also absorbs solar heat, which is slowly released during the night, preventing frost damage. Consequently, a warmer microclimate is created on the southern side of the wall for 24 hours per day.
Generally speaking, I’m not a very formal guy. I enjoy a right mess and have an extremely high tolerance for “natural” looking gardens. As a permaculture designer, I’m bias towards a “nature knows best approach”, but there’s something very appealing about growing a leafy wall of fruit.