A Leafy Wall of Fruit. Save Space, Increase Your Yield 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, flat tree or shrub that conserves space and produces consistent and easily managed fruit.
One of the biggest advantages of espalier fruit trees is that they conserve a tonne of space. A typical fruit tree with a 10-foot spread would have a footprint close to 80 square feet. The same espalier tree would barely take up 10 square feet of space. Yes, espalier trees tend to be smaller but this technique 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-dimentional fruit tree is quite easy – pick a branch, start on one end, and work your way to the other. It’s also relatively easy to maintain the height of a trained tree so you can keep it as tall or at short as you’d like. With a clear view of all the fruit, harvesting the fruit from a well-trained tree takes minutes.
Though a smaller espaliered fruit tree may produce less fruit overall it’ll punch above its weight. This is especially true for apples which like to send out long-lived fruiting spurs on horizontal branches. An added bonus of this open-pruning style is that the fruit gets plenty of sunlight – this will help the fruit ripen and develop fully.
Next to conserving space, the biggest advantage of training espalier fruit trees is that you can often face them South of place them up against walls in ways that create beneficial microclimates. For Northern fruit growers such as myself, creating microclimates can push the boundaries of what’s possible. 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 like a good mess and have an extremely high tolerance for “natural” looking gardens – and laundry rooms. As a permaculture designer, I strongly believe that nature knows best. And yet, there’s something I find very appealing about the recta-linear look of a mature espalier tree. Maybe I just like fruit trees and growing as many as possible into my backyard. Perhaps I’m drawn to creating microclimates and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to grow here. But there’s something extra magical about a leafy wall of fruit.