Until I read Alice Thorson’s Q+A on with Cody Hogan, I’d never heard the gardening term “espalier,” which is pronounced es-pal-YAY by French gardeners and es-PAL-yer by Americans.
Upon combing The Kansas City Star archives, I found an article from 2003 by Debra O’Connor, of the Twin Cities’ Pioneer Press, which describes it as painstakingly training the branches of trees and woody plants flat against a fence or wall and into the shape of a fan, diamond, palm frond or candelabra.
Apples, pears, yews and ginkgoes are some of the trees that can be espaliered, but it takes a lot of patience: up to four years from planting until the tree starts taking shape.
Apparently, you can buy nursery plants that have been started in espalier form, but they’re hard to transplant, and starting from scratch works better.
According to O’Connor, here’s how you do it:
Plant a young tree, called a whip, several inches from a wall or fence in full sun.
Screw bolts into masonry or wood or into posts at either end of the design and attach heavy wire to form the design in which you will train the tree. Note that a solid, contrasting color behind the espalier makes the design easier to see.
Gently tie existing branches that suit the design onto the wires and trim away others.
Train branches to bend by attaching them to bamboo sticks, then lower the sticks a little at a time to the preferred position.
Cut and bend new growth to manipulate it.
Trees usually grow upward toward the sun, so you have to make that work within the design framework. Cutting back the tree, for example, activates dormant buds, and the gardener can then pick the one that serves the design best and get rid of the others.