I can’t believe I am espaliering fruit trees along our backyard fence, but there they are and so it is.
Just as I am bothered by animals in cages, the idea of tying a tree to a wall, whacking off most of its limbs and torturing its branches to bend in directions it would never naturally go on its own used to repulse me. Yet here I am doing it.
It gets worse.
I could say I am doing it because we have less than 7000 square feet which includes the house, garage, sidewalk and driveway, so growing space is at a premium. Espalier allows a gardener intent on growing as much of their own food as possible to pack in a crazy amount of fruit trees in a small area.
I could also say that espalier boosts productivity, fruit size and (this one surprised me) actually extends the life and increases the health of the tree. I have learned there are espalier gardens that are centuries old where the trees continue not only to survive, but thrive, producing crop after abundant crop, while suffering none of the blights experienced by their wilder siblings.
I could say all these things and they would all be true, but it wouldn’t be the whole truth of why I chose to espalier.
Turns out, I love to prune.
I am not sure why my newly discovered penchant for pruning makes me feel slightly ashamed. It’s not as if I am confessing to being a serial killer or something. It’s just that for so many years I let things grow wild by choice. I rarely pruned anything. I hated to even thin the carrot beds and not just because it was a tedious job. I liked to think of myself as more of a helpful observer in my garden than a controller. If you asked me what I thought of people who espaliered I probably would have been less than kind in my response.
Then we moved to this urban lot and I felt forced to prune out some trees branches that were either crossing the property lines or causing issues with our house or driveway. First I reluctantly tackled some lilacs, then the mountain ash and finally our apple, birch and maple.
I took out all the branches that were dead, then ones that crossed over and rubbed on other branches and finally ones that took away from the overall shape of the tree. I discovered there is this moment when you are pruning where you can actually feel the tree start to “breathe”. The air circulates through the branches and everything looks and feels so much healthier and you can see the shape it wants to take. You can almost sense the tree thanking you.
After their pruning, the trees looked so much healthier. I liked how that felt but I also loved the process that got them there. If I were 20 years younger and not so afraid of heights, I would go into training to become an arborist. I love it that much.
I starting wandering around the yard with my pruning shears like a hairdresser gone wild, just looking for something, anything, to prune.
This is the perniciousness of the urban garden. It demands attention but then gives you very little to pay attention to.
If you have a busy life and a young family this is a good thing. You can whip around for a couple hours on a Saturday morning mowing, weeding and trimming and get all the yard work for the week finished and still have a weekend to call your own.
If you’re a gardener whose idea of a great weekend IS yard work, then it can be a bit of a let down. The good news is that it is nothing a few dump trucks of soil on your front and back lawn can’t take care of. Throw in a few high maintenance perennials and lots of beds that need constant edging, weeding and deadheading and all is right with the weekend world of the urban gardener once again.
Or you can sprain your ankle and let the garden get ahead of you that way, but I don’t recommend it. But enough about that.
If you are a gardener who has developed a pruning habit and find yourself wandering your lot with a pair of pruners, looking wistfully over the fence at your neighbour’s trees, well, you just might be interested in espalier gardening.
As soon as I read how espalier trees require lots of detailed pruning, I knew I needed to have some. And that is how I came to have a plum, an apple and a pear tree spread-eagling their way along a couple rubber coated wires on our back fence.
You can buy fruit trees specifically for this purpose that have already been prepped for espalier wires, but I did no such thing. Instead I bought trees that were already too tall to allow for any lower branches to weave their way along the fence. This is not ideal.
On the other hand, it allows me to plant smaller fruit trees of a different type and by pruning so they remain short, I can run their branches beneath the others, on a lower wire, further maximizing my space, food production and crop variety.
And so here I am, happily bending, tweaking, pruning and well, generally
torturing encouraging things along. I have no idea if any good will come of it. All I can say for certain is I am being as gentle as I possibly can, I haven’t killed any of the trees yet and if an enthusiasm for pruning mixed with whispered apologies count as fertilizer, they should start growing like crazy soon. I hope.
Right now my own espalier shape is nowhere near as fancy as those shown above. It is simply sparse and somewhat horizontal. I also have grapes, clematis and Virginia creeper climbing up the fence, so I am hoping for a kind of a hodgepodge mix of blossoms, fruit, branches and vines that somehow add up to a wild, beautiful but carefully pruned whole.
Time will tell if it is a success or a rousing failure.
On that note, I leave you with one of my favourite garden quotes.