When I was in 8th grade, I had to decide what foreign language to learn in school. My paternal grandmother was a French teacher. Both my parents had taken French when they were in school. I loved Eclairs. This seemed like an obvious choice. Now, living in California, working in the landscape construction business, and cultivating an obsession with Carnitas, I feel that Spanish may have been a better route to take. But even though it wasn’t the practical choice, I can’t deny that French is an incredibly beautiful language.
This may be part of the reason I love espalier. Just say it: ES-PAHL-YAY (or es-pah-lee-air, but that way doesn’t sound as sexy). Now say it in a way that doesn’t sound as ridiculous as my phonetic interpretations look. Just let it roll off your tongue. Like Chevalier. Espalier.
According to my inside sources (Wikipedia), Espalier is the horticultural and ancient agricultural practice of controlling woody plant growth originally for the production of fruit, by pruning and tying branches to a frame so that they grow into a flat plane, frequently in formal patterns, against a structure such as a wall, fence, or trellis; and also plants which have been shaped in this way.
Also known as an awesome way to screen a narrow space, and potentially get some fruit at the same time. Heyo!
Bay Area homes can offer spectacular views, so the orientation of these homes will maximize the vista. As a result, useable outdoor space may be sacrificed. In many cases, neighbors are literally an arm’s length away. So, what if the arm’s length is on the south side of your house, where the sun shines longest? Or you’d like to obscure a blank wall or unattractive view, but a billowy screening shrub would impede movement or block valuable light? Or, your first priority is to maximize entertaining space by enlarging a patio or deck, but the second highest priority is that Meyer Lemon you’ve always wanted (and frankly, being a Bay Area resident, you deserve)? An espalier may be the answer.
Vines can soften large expanses of wall or fence, but many homeowners aren’t thrilled with the prospect of something like ivy or jasmine climbing up the side of the home, getting into gutters and potentially damaging the paint or trim. An espalier can do the job of a vine, creating a vertical green screen, but lessening the risk of damage. Though the premise behind the espalier is pretty simple, there are some basic maintenance requirements. They need at least occasional pruning to keep their shape. Traditional espalier are kept to form with diligent pruning, into clearly defined designs and patterns, like candelabras and fans.
Personally, I’m not that strict. Someday I’d like to give a formal espalier a try, but in most gardens I recommend them for more practical purposes. Most of my clients don’t have the time to cultivate a Camellia into a Serpentine pattern, but they can keep it tidy and clean by pruning back branches that extend more than a few inches out from the main structure. They get the screen of a dense evergreen shrub, the flowers or fruit that come with it, but haven’t sacrificed valuable real estate.
While espalier have historically borne fruit (apples, pears, lemons, and figs have a long espalier history), there are other small trees and shrubs well suited to espalier, like Camellias, Dwarf Magnolias, and Fringeflower (Loropetalum).
I tried to naturally espalier a Mirror Plant against a wall in my garden, and it worked just great until a storm last year when the main branch failed and the whole thing fell over (hindsight being 20/20, I probably should have tied it up). Some espalier can be removed from the trellis they are trained against once the primary branches are strong enough, but most need some type of support to maintain the structure.
Espalier can also be used to create fences. Where a long stretch of screen is desired, multiple espaliers can be placed in a row, creating a narrow hedge. This is called a Belgian Fence. The shrubs or trees in a Belgian fence are typically supported with posts and strong wire to help direct the branching pattern. This technique is often used in apple and pear orchards.
Considering how well they’ve done with beer and waffles, I’m going to assume the Belgians are onto something here. Want to give it a shot? Call Lazar and ask for Barry if you’ve got the space and you want to try this. I’m in. I’ll even bring the beer and waffles.