Espalier Tree Types: How To Train a Tree (Trellis, Designs, Espalier Fruit, Fence)

Drew Spiller author of content at 8 Billion Trees.Written by Drew Spiller

Gardening | August 14, 2023

Man looking at espalier trees wonders how to train a tree using espalier trellis, espalier designs, and espalier fence techniques for espalier fruit trees, espalier apple trees and other fruit tree options.

If you are a gardener working in a confined area, or if you just have a penchant for organization, and you’ve never heard of espalier trees, you may have wondered about how to train a tree to occupy just the right amount of space.

If that is the case, utilizing an espalier (meaning “to rest one’s shoulder against”) might be a technique with a lot of utility for you, enabling you to “train” espalier trees to occupy a very specific space.

This complete guide explains the espalier tree types based on espalier designs, and provides information about how to train a tree using a trellis, create a tree fence, or establish an espalier apple tree (how to espalier fruit trees).

It also includes common espalier fruit trees and other ornamental plants that can grow well on a fence or against a wall, which will not only have your garden looking incredible, but can maximize the health and longevity of your trees.

Origins of Espalier Trees

Humanity had figured out how to train a tree as far back as ancient Rome according to Wikipedia.8

Roman society’s great overall concern with aesthetics and beauty, and their use of strong geometric shapes like domes and cylindrical columns would have made the neatly ordered rows of espalier trees a strong natural fit.

Graphics of common Espalier designs on trees showing Cordon Style, Candelabra Style, Belgian Fence Style, Palmetto Verrier Style, Fan Style, and Informal Style.

During the middle ages in Europe, espalier tree growth grew in popularity as castle-based medieval life was a natural fit for the controlled, limited spaces of many gardens at the time. According to the University of Florida, the practice was taken more and more seriously, up to the point of being treated as an art form.1

Perhaps the most familiar example of this technique can be seen in vineyards around the world, where grapes have been trained using this technique for possibly thousands of years.

Although, in the 17th century, the term espalier referred to the trellis or frame being used to guide the plant’s growth and development, not the plant itself. But as time went on and the language evolved, the term came to be used for the plants themselves.

Espalier trees have been in the United States since before the United States existed as a country. Evidence of this can be seen courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.5

Common Espalier Designs: Making a Tree Fence

There are several different shapes that are commonly used in this style of growing trees. In general, the decision of which to go with is based on aesthetics, although certain forms do offer certain advantages.

Whichever style best pleases your eye aesthetically and can do what you want it to is the right one for you; that being said, within one landscaped space, it is generally considered a best practice to stick to one style consistently.

Part of knowing how to train a tree is knowing which shape is the best fit for your tree, the support structure, and the overall landscape.

Cordon Espalier

The most traditional espalier style is called the Cordon. In this style of espalier, there is a central trunk growing vertically and the branches of the tree have been trained to grow out horizontally, in rows that match up on both sides of the trunk.

Eye level shot of a flowering espaliered tree against red brick wall using the Cordon style.

(Image: Wal_17261911)

This pattern of growth can increase fruit yields and also serve as a sort of living fence or barrier to break up the physical space in a garden or orchard. It can also serve as a sort of horizontal garden, where the fruit grows neatly in rows that are easy to retrieve.

Eye-level shot of an espaliered pear tree with clusters of white flowers using the Palmetto Verrier style.

(Image: Wendy Cutler12)

Palmetto Verrier Espalier

The Palmetto Verrier style of espalier is achieved by training the tree’s branches into U-shapes. This is done by starting out similarly to the Cordon, and then redirecting the branches upward once they hit a specific distance from the trunk.

Unlike other espalier styles, this more intricate style of espalier trees requires extra training for the branches in order to get this bend in the branch. Palmetto Verrier-style trees can be kept more visually distinct even when planted against the same wall.

Candelabra Espalier

A Candelabra-style espalier is named for its resemblance to its namesake object. A low branch is grown out as a Cordon, with vertical branches growing out of it at regular intervals.

A row of Candelabra-styled espalier trees against a white wall.

(Image: Silvio Ludwig13)

Similarly to the Palmetto Verrier, this can keep the trees from blending together visually, allowing each to stand out on its own.

You may need to be particularly intentional about tying the branches to your trellis, but the visual impact this style of espalier has on the viewer may well be worth it.

An espalier tree against a brick wall using the Fan style.

(Image: Acabashi14)

Fan Espalier

If you have a square space for a tree to occupy, or if you want to accentuate the verticality of the plant, you may favor a Fan Espalier.

In this style of espalier, the branches grow upward at a 45-degree angle from the trunk in a pattern evoking a fan.

Belgian Fence Espalier

A more complex version of the Fan Espalier design is the Belgian Fence espalier, which like the Cordon can also be used as privacy trees.

This requires at least three trees, each grown with a modified version of a Fan Espalier. Where the branches overlap, you need to weave them together to create a lattice effect.

Eye level shot of a Belgian style espalier tree fence on the side of a house which also serves as privacy screen.

(Image: Andyvancleve15)

Eye level shot of a huge espalier tree with an informal design making its span wide.

(Image: Graham Bould16)

Informal Espalier

If you want something a little more organic in presentation but still making the most of the space, you may just want an Informal Espalier. Necessitating only regular pruning, this allows the tree to grow naturally while still only occupying a narrow vertical plane.

How To Train a Tree

Espalier is the horticultural practice of controlling the growth and fruit production of woody plants by tying branches down to a frame and pruning excess growth.

The most common versions of this technique will use a fence, trellis, or wall as the structure the plant is tied to in order to create the shape, sometimes referred to as an espalier trellis or espalier pruning.

In doing this, you can create a very orderly presentation of your plants (this can also be assisted by putting in tree edging around the plant to put it in its own distinct visual space). Training fruit trees in this way can make sure that all of their fruit grow in locations that are relatively easy to reach.

Eye level shot of a vineyard showing rows of espaliered grape vines with a mountain in the background.

(Image: David Bartus10)

Espalier is similar to but distinct from several other horticultural practices, all of which are used with landscaping trees.

Espaliers are like pleached trees in that both involve cultivating rigidly vertical trunks. The only difference is that pleached trees have a solid panel of leaves concentrated at the top, while espaliered trees have multiple-tiered branches.

Topiaries and espaliers may look similar but are concerned with different parts of a tree.

The topiary is more concerned with the final silhouette of the plant’s leaves, while the espalier is more concerned with the internal structural elements of the plant such as the trunk, and branches. This means that, in the winter when the leaves fall away, topiary trees may look wildly different while an espalier tree will still have the same basic visual structure.

Espalier trees also have a lot of similarities to various types of bonsai trees. Bonsai also involves pruning, but unlike espaliers, most types of bonsai trees have their roots restricted to keep them at a miniature size.

As cities grow bigger every year, the push for ways to re-green these urban settings has grown. Espalier trees can be a big step toward bringing in new plant life and adding some natural greenery to the urban sprawl.

The same qualities that made espalier trees a strong fit for being grown in a medieval castle also make them well-suited to grow in a narrow urban garden or the confined space of a small suburban yard, so you may be able to bring types of trees you’d never thought you’d have room for into your space!

Eye level shot of a park in Amsterdam showing a row of espalier trees.

(Image: Ceescamel9)

Espalier trees can also be a boon for the environment.

The carbon footprint of the fruit you buy at the store includes all the carbon produced by every step of the process involved in growing the fruit you consume.

But if you’ve ever used a carbon footprint calculator, you know that you can do a lot to reduce your carbon footprint. Growing your own fruit tree can help you with this.

Even though espalier trees are smaller than most fruit trees, the lack of need for transport means that if you’re able to supplement your personal fruit consumption and that of your family, you can take a significant chunk out of your carbon footprint.

Setting Up an Espalier Trellis or Espalier Fence

Before planting your tree, it is best to have a trellis prepared and assembled in order to be ready to start directing the tree’s growth from the moment it goes into the soil.

A simple example trellis would start with a set of 4×4 posts (ideally Redwood or, failing that, Cedar, as these will stand up to the elements best), each of which should be 7 feet long (or longer if you want a taller tree).

Graphics illustrating ideal measurements when setting up espalier trellis.

You will need two such posts for a single espalier tree, adding another post for each additional tree you wish to plant along this trellis. You will also need 3 4-inch-long eyebolts per post, 24 feet of 12-gauge wire per tree, and (optionally) turnbuckles.

  1. Place the posts 8 feet away from each other, and sink them each 2-3 feet into the ground, tamping the soil around them to ensure their stability.
  2. Put the eyebolts into the sections of the posts that are above ground at 18-inch intervals (18, 36, and 54 inches from the ground), making sure to leave a couple of inches of space between the eye of the bolt and the post to accommodate the branches of your tree.
  3. Next, you need to run the wire through the open portion of the eyebolts, pulling the wire taut and using turnbuckles to adjust the tension if the wire stretches. These wires are going to be the guides you attach the tree’s branches to, so you can adjust this structure for more or fewer branches as is your preference.
  4. In late autumn or early spring, purchase a young tree with bare roots, ideally with a semi-dwarf rootstock as this will help keep it from growing too large. Plant it exactly in the center of the two posts, lined up so the branches can grow along the wires. Any excess branches should be pruned off.
  5. Use nursery tape to secure the branches to the wires, being sure to leave the tips of the branches uncovered and free to stick up a bit, as this will encourage the branch’s continued growth.
  6. From here, just keep pruning and tying down the branches and you’ll be well on your way.

If you are building this trellis to support their growth along a wall, the University of Wisconsin recommends choosing a south-facing one if you’re in the northern hemisphere.3 This will create a microclimate that’s warmer than usual, which may allow you to cultivate a tree in a region that would ordinarily be a bit too cold to support that tree’s growth.

Keeping Up With Espalier Pruning

The beautiful geometric forms of espalier trees do, as you may imagine, require a significant amount of maintenance. The best time for this varies with the type of tree, but the general best practices for any kind of espalier tree are consistent.

Trees have a natural branching structure, but that structure can be manipulated to increase fruit yields. While you want the initial branches growing off of the trunk to keep growing, these branches will then grow plentiful other branches off of themselves, which throws off the visual effect espaliers are going for, but does provide an opportunity to improve fruit yields.

Make cuts just above where the branch buds, or splits off from its parent branch, removing these excess branches. This both restores the clean lines of your espalier and leaves this site as a location for fruit to grow the following year.

Continue this process about once a month until it’s about 6 weeks from the first frost in your area.

More detailed instructions on this process (and espalier plants) have been provided by North Carolina State University, so you can find more detailed information in there about how to train a tree into an espalier, including pruning schedules and structural supports.2

Different Types of Espalier Plants

The practice of espalier growing has mostly been used specifically as a method to cultivate fruit trees in areas with limited space. However, in the present day, fruit trees have lost their stranglehold on the practice, and there are a wide variety of plants you can grow in this style.

Beyond fruit trees, you can also grow evergreens like Pyracantha, Camellias, Hornbeam Tree, Japanese Maple Tree, Photinia, and many others in this style to great success and visual effect. Wikipedia has an expanded list of plant varieties you could turn into espaliers.8

Growing Non-Fruit Bearing Espalier Trees

If you aren’t interested in cultivating fruit, but instead simply like the ornamental value of espalier trees, there are a wide variety of other trees that can be grown in this particular style to tremendous visual effect.

Photo of espalier plants against the outer walls of a house.

(Image: MemoryCatcher17)

The Magnolia Tree is beautiful and a staple of landscaping across the American South. Given that these trees can grow to be 80 feet tall, you probably won’t be working at the usual scale of an espalier, but the same principles of binding the limbs to an external structure can be applied to get the visual and ornamental effect of an espalier Magnolia, albeit much larger than usual.

It is also possible to grow an espalier Japanese Maple, particularly the Bloodgood variety. These plants are highly visually striking, the reddish or purplish foliage providing a splash of color against the greenery of your garden.

Like most of these other plants, the Bloodgood Japanese Maple likes well-draining soil, but it does favor partial shade over direct sunlight, so be careful about where you place it if you want the healthiest possible growth.

Depending on the climate you’re in, you may be able to grow some subspecies of the Hong Kong Orchid Tree as an espalier as well, according to the University of Florida.4 In fact, certain subspecies may be strong fits for the espalier treatment.

How To Espalier Fruit Trees

Before you start the process of training an espalier tree, it’s important to make sure you have a realistic understanding of what the process will entail.

As Oregon State University points out, the fact that espalier trees are generally smaller than regular trees in no way means that espalier trees are going to be easier to manage; they typically involve at least as much upkeep as a full-grown tree due to the specificity involved in maintaining them.6

The most commonly espaliered types of fruit trees are apples and pears because they have exceptionally long-lasting spurs upon which fruit grow and their new growth is relatively easy to direct and shape.

However, if you’re not interested or able to grow apples or pears, there’s no need to worry. It is also entirely possible to espalier Fig Trees, Cherries, Peaches, Pomegranates or espalier lemon tree types.

An espaliered fig tree with few leaves against a brick wall.

(Image: Leonora Enking18)

If you have a smaller stone fruit tree, like say a Plum, Nectarine, or Apricot Tree, you can still espalier them, although it may take more delicate work when it comes to pruning.

If you’re starting fresh for the first time, you may specifically want to favor a dwarf cultivar as these smaller plants are easier to train.

But, just about any tree will work, you can even espalier olive tree species.

Benefits of Espalier Fruit Trees

Fruit trees have several shared qualities that make them well-suited to espalier techniques.

The flattened nature of an espalier tree means that sunlight is able to reach the whole tree, ensuring more consistent ripening of fruit.

Fruit trees also generally respond well to espalier techniques, with younger more pliable fruit trees being easily trainable and capable of being shaped into a number of forms.

Growing an Espalier Apple Tree

As previously mentioned, Apple Trees are among the most common types of fruit-bearing trees you’ll see being grown using espalier techniques. This is for a number of different reasons which North Carolina Historic Sites provides more information on.

The first decision you need to make for yourself is what type of apple tree you’re going to grow.

If you’re going to start with just one tree, you’ll want to make sure that whatever variety you pick is one that can self-fertilize; otherwise, you’ll have a hard time getting a significant yield of fruit.

Another consideration is that your local nursery may have some tree specimens that are already pruned and prepared for espalier training, which can make it a bit easier to get started.

Once you’ve made a selection regarding the type of apple tree you want to grow, the best time to plant it would be during or immediately before or after winter (roughly November to March in the Northern Hemisphere, and May to August in the Southern Hemisphere).

Depending on where you live, you may need to wait for a day when the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged before planting, as in these conditions your tree will be unable to grow.

The spot you choose should have deep, well-draining soil, and be in sheltered sunlight. You may also want to fertilize the tree when you plant it.

An espalier Apple Tree showing green leaves and fruits hanging from the branches.

(Image: Amy Lenzo19)

The actual mechanical work is unchanged from most other circumstances where you’d want to grow a tree.

Dig out a hole as deep as the roots and 2-3 times as wide, loosen the soil with a fork, and be sure that whatever structure you’re going to be attaching the espalier specimen to is firmly in place. Once you plant the tree in the soil, be sure to tie it to that structural element to support its growth.

In the summer, when the branches start growing up, cut them back, leaving only 2 or 3 buds on each branch, as these will become spurs where your fruit will grow. Keep the branches tied to the wire and leave the tips free until the tree either reaches the size you want or runs out of trellis.

At this point, you should either tie the very tips to the wire or turn them downward to slow their growth. Any spurs growing downward could weigh the limb down when they grow fruit, so you may want to trim them off.

Cut the top of the tree a few inches shy of the top of whatever structure you have it growing against so that it will also create side branches, and then repeat the process of tying the branches to the trellis.

By the second or third year, your tree should be ready to bear fruit.

Growing an Espalier Pear Tree

Another variety of fruit that can adapt well to the espalier growing technique is the pear.

Pears, like apples, have longer-lasting spurs which make it easier to ensure you get a higher yield of fruit. Even so, there are still measures you can take to ensure your Pear Tree is as well-suited as possible to this form of horticulture.

Closeup of an espaliered pear tree showing its dark green and glossy leaves and some fruits hanging from a branch.

(Image: Jackie20)

According to the University of Missouri, pears have a variety of dwarf forms and grow at a rate that would be very conducive to being grown as an espalier.7

Naturally, some varieties of pear are better suited to become an espalier pear tree.

The Kieffer Pear is more organically resistant to disease and cold, and it doesn’t require pollinators. Other good cultivars to try out are Bartlett and Harrow’s Delight, each of which you may also be able to find at your local nurseries.

Other Types of Fruit-Bearing Espalier Trees

Lemon trees can be espalier trained, but to do so successfully takes some managing of expectations.

Lemon varieties that would work well for this include Dwarf Lisbon and Improved Meyer. Both of these varieties grow to smaller sizes which is more manageable with espalier techniques.

Dwarf Lisbon lemons are less sweet and more acidic, while Improved Meyer lemons are actually hybrids of lemons and mandarin oranges and as such bring more sweetness to bear.

The manner in which lemon trees grow means that they may not respond well to being forced into a very specific shape, so your espalier Lemon Tree would be best served by an informal structure that still lets it grow in the way to give you the best yield.

Olive Tree

Olive Trees are not commonly grown in this manner, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to grow an espalier Olive Tree.

You can use a conventional trellis for olive trees, although if you build a support structure on a brick wall, the tendency of the bricks to hold heat will help support your tree’s health during the winter months.

Unfortunately, Dwarf Olive Trees don’t bear fruit, so you’ll need to use a variety of Olive that naturally wants to grow significantly taller than a typical espalier, so you’ll need to be prepared to break out a ladder to prune the upper branches.

Plum Tree

Stone fruit like plums and apricot trees are a trickier proposition. There aren’t many good dwarf varieties of these trees, and the way in which they grow means that the assertive pruning practices involved in espalier growing would not lead to fruit production, which largely negates the primary likely motivator behind your hopes to grow an espalier Plum Tree.

However, with some modification to the practice, it is possible to get a result very close to a traditional espalier effect.

Eye level shot of an espalier Plum Tree showing clusters of green leaves and several fruits hanging from the branches.

(Image: Acabashi21)

Instead of using a wire trellis as discussed above, you want a structure similar to a chain-link fence. By loosely tying the branches to this structure, you can achieve a result pretty similar to a fan espalier, relying on the chain-link structure to support the branches when their fruit come in.

Offshoot branches can either be pruned off or woven back into the existing structure. In winter, you will want to cut away overlapping shoots if you have multiple trees, subsequently treating large cuts with copper-based paint to keep these trees from getting a fungal infection.

Cherry Tree

If you want to grow a Cherry Tree using espalier techniques, you need to choose the right variety.

As some trees can grow to be over 40 feet tall, you need to make sure you choose a dwarf variety to make it manageable. Sweet Cherries are not recommended for this process.

Sweet Cherries are very difficult to train to follow the espalier structure, and even if you’re able to pollinate them (no easy task), their fruits will mostly be devoured by birds before you can get to them. For a Sweet Cherry, the better option is to grow them as free-standing, very tall specimens.

Sour Cherries, are more resilient and can respond well to being grown in an espalier arrangement, so if you really want some espalier Cherry Trees, opt for sour cherries instead.

Wide shot of espaliered plants covering portions of the exterior walls of a house.

(Image: Jitka Erbenová22)

Espalier Trees can serve a variety of purposes in a variety of settings.

If you have a very small space where you’d like to be able to support the growth and development of a fruit tree, using espalier techniques can help you get a substantial yield of fruit without needing to take up all the space a regular tree would demand.

If you have a space that you’d like to divide up without the harsh lines of an artificial barrier like a fence, a Cordon Espalier Tree could break up the space in the way you want while still maintaining the aesthetics of a green, leafy, natural space.

If you don’t feel confident in your ability to handle this technique all by yourself, you may want to consult with tree doctors to get an expert opinion on what would be the best fit for the space you want to put the tree in and the type of espalier you want to have.

Getting an expert consultation would help you get off to a good start in terms of developing a strategy to ensure the best possible outcome for your espalier tree, and if you are unsure of your ability to handle the pruning those same experts can either help you figure out what to do and potentially be rehired to come back when pruning is needed.

Whether as an ornamental plant, a space-saving measure, or a way to get some home-grown fruit without having to rely on outside sources, espalier techniques can be useful in getting your garden or landscaping to where you’d like it to be. With careful pruning and meticulous use of a support structure, you can train a tree into all manner of different shapes, adding a beautiful and practical element to the landscape.

If you know how to train a tree into these different shapes, then you can make sure that you’re able to make the absolute most out of every square foot of space available to you in your garden with espalier trees.


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