Growing an Espalier Fruit Tree
Espalier trees are single or combination variety trees that have been bud grafted and pruned to grow horizontally against a flat surface or as a living fence. Popularized in the middle ages as a way to grow fruit against the stone walls of a castle courtyard, espalier fruit trees remain a good strategy for growers with limited space. Espalier trees come in several varieties and depending on the grower’s goals may require specific pruning and trellis supports, so it is important to choose one that is right for your area.
Espalier trees can be grown to various heights through intensive and selective pruning. For a shorter tree it is important to choose a rootstock that will meet your needs.
Unless otherwise noted, all apples, pears, and Asian pears need another variety of apple nearby to pollinate each other. Use the apple pollination chart to determine which pollinizer tree variety is the right choice. While some apples and pears are self-fertile, generally a pollination partner will increase the size and quality of the harvest. Varieties in the overlapping flower groups will pollinize each other
Many plums and cherries are self-fertile and require no pollinator, however some varieties are not. Unless otherwise noted, sweet cherries with only pollinate with sweet cherries and sour cherries will only pollinate with sour cherries. Likewise Japanese plums pollinate only Japanese plums and European plums pollinate only European plums.
Pollination is important during your orchard planning as well, since you need pollinators to fly between your fruit trees. The pollinizers should be planted no further than 50 feet apart, to ensure proper cross-pollination.
USDA Hardiness Zone
Fruit trees are hardy to USDA zones 4-9, unless otherwise noted . This rating tells you the minimum winter temperature the plants typically survive when properly hardened off. On our web site you will find a USDA Hardiness Maps which provides information on the average minimum winter temperature in your location, by zip code.
Fruit trees need a certain number of chill hours per year, which means that you need to pair the chill hours to your climate. If you live in the south or an especially temperate area, you will want to choose a variety of apricot classified as “low-chill”. This means they have a lower required amount of hours the temperature is below 45F degrees.
Where to Plant Your Tree
Fruit trees need to be planted where they receive at least 8 hours of full sunlight. People often don’t realize that it is the sun that ripens the fruit, and without enough of it your apples will never fully mature.
Fruit trees like well-drained soil, nothing too wet. Soil can be somewhat rocky and sandy, but needs to be moderately rich and retain moisture as well as air. Clay soil should be amended prior to planting, but can be accomplished by mixing in coco-coir and perlite to improve drainage.
Growing in Containers
Espalier mini-dwarf apple trees are the best candidates for growing an apple tree in a container. The variety “Queen Cox” is one of the best because it is self-fertile, so if you are only going to plant one apple tree in a pot, this is the one to do!
To grow a fruit tree in a pot you need a container of at least 25 gallons. Larger is better, but make sure you have the ability and tools to move the pots heavy weight.
Do not use soil from your garden in the pot, instead use a potting soil mix with some added compost.
Care and Maintenance
Watering Your Tree
This is the most important and often the most difficult part of successfully growing plants. There are many factors, including the humidity, temperature, soil type, wind, and amount of direct sun that affect how much and how often water should be applied.
A general rule of thumb for plants in the ground is to ensure they receive an inch of water per week over the root zone. An inch of water is equivalent to about ¾ to one gallon per square foot of soil surface area. The typical three foot diameter planting hole would need 7 ½ to 10 gallons of water per week provided by rainfall or by the gardener.
Apply this water once a week, two times per week if soil is fast draining. This will of course depend on your own conditions and the plants you are growing! DO NOT waterlightly each day because this results in a wet surface and dry root zone area. The soil should be moist but not soggy to a depth of about a foot for most growing plants. The top inch or two can feel dry, and the plant still be well watered. The trick is to have the water available where the roots are. In hotter and sunnier areas, a mulch of straw, bark, etc. can greatly ease the burden of summer watering. For plants in containers, water until the soil is saturated and water comes out of the drainage holes. Let the container dry until the soil is dry to the touch 1-2 inches down and the container is lighter in weight. A plant that has wilted canbe receiving either too much or too little water.
In rainy areas like the Pacific Northwest most of the plants that we offer will need relatively little supplemental irrigation ONCE THEY ARE WELL ESTABLISHED in the ground and have had a chance to develop a good root system. However even here it is important to make sure plants have regular, deep watering during the first couple of growing seasons, and the first summer is especially critical. In drier areas, permanent irrigation is essential. Remember that you don’t want your trees to just survive, but rather to thrive. Make sure they get the water they need.
One method is through drip irrigation. We use half- inch flexible plastic pipe with punch-in emitters for trees in the ground. For each young tree, we use two emitters, spaced one foot from the trunk. The pipe can be put on the ground, under the ground with risers, or tied loosely from the trees. We use emitters that drip one gallon per hour. See drawing above. There are many different styles of drip systems, some controlled by timers and others by hand. Or, each tree can be watered with a hose deeply about once a week. Sandy soils will need more frequent watering than clay soils. For smaller plants, like strawberries or raspberries, soaker hoses work very well.
For good steady growth and high productivity, your trees need to have adequate amounts of various mineral nutrients. Some people are fortunate and have naturally rich fertile soil. Many soils, however, are deficient in some nutrient or another and use of fertilizers, organic or chemical, can be highly beneficial if you want your trees to grow well. If you have a large gardener orchardist can be well worth it to have your soil analyzed by a qualified laboratory so you know for sure just what your soil needs. Typically this might cost $30-$60, depending on how detailed an analysis you want. Unless you know what is available in your soil, you will not be able to supplement it properly.
Use an all-purpose or balanced fertilizer like the organic fruit tree and shrub fertilizer. A couple of inches of well-rotted compost on the root zone can also be an effective fertilizer. A generous leaf or straw mulch around your trees will not only conserve moisture and help in weed control, but also keeps your soil healthy by building up humus, attracting earthworms, and supporting beneficial fungal organisms. This encourages young trees to be strong, healthy and productive. Use of concentrated products like chemical fertilizers or strong organics (for instance blood meal) is usually done from late winter through early summer. Applying fertilizer after early summer can encourage lots of soft new growth that is much more likely to be damaged by winter cold. Excessive use of fertilizer can in-crease disease problems on your plants and can even kill them. Use of too much fertilizer, whether chemical or organic, canals contribute to stream and groundwater pollution, so please try not to use more than your trees really need. As a general guide, if your tree is producing about one foot of new growth or more a year and has healthy looking foliage, it may not need much or any fertilizer.
Pests and Diseases
Browsed shortened branches. Leaves are obviously munched on or plants are pulled up.
Fences or cages at least 8’ tall. Plastic mesh, electric, or woven wire fences.
At Raintree, an 8’ woven wire deer fence has worked best. Repellents don’t work consistently. and only trained large dogs patrolling the perimeter are effective. Some have had success with the product “Deerchaser.”
Fruits disappear or have gaping holes in them. Strawberries, blueberries, cherries and filberts are most susceptible but most fruits suffer occasionally.
Reflective Bird Scare Tape can work well. Bird netting. Cages.
Blue Jays start harvesting filberts when ready to pick, and so should you. Nuts dropped by jays are usually empty.
Bark eaten in a band from soil level up to 8” and roots eaten too, usually in snowy areas with lots of mulch or tall grass at base of trees.
Keep mulch 4”-6” away from trunk. Keep grass short and 1’-2’ from trunk. Use vinyl tree guard wrapped around trunk until tree well-established.
Voles and mice will chew a couple inches above ground and also into the root system. Rabbits will chew up to 8” high, particularly apple trees.
1/32 to 1/8” long pear shaped insects that multiply rapidly, espe- cially on the underside of leaves and on stems. Can be pink, green, black or white. Leaves show red blisters or are curled-down and stems turn black with sooty mold.
Natural predators like lady bugs and parasitic wasps often provide control. Knock aphids off with water spray. Spray with Pyrethrin, Rotenone, Insecticidal Soap, or delayed dormant oil. Control ants if they are also present.
Trees can tolerate some infestation. Monitor in late spring and summer. Control is more important on new trees. Grow plants that attract predators, i.e. dill or yarrow.
Numerous ants scurrying up and down the tree trunk; aphids, scale or mealybug present in large numbers, lots of sticky honeydew, perhaps sooty mold.
Find hill and apply pesticide. Apply Tangle Trap over 2-3” wide band of paper wrapped around trunk. Eliminate other pathways into tree.
Ants nurture and protect these insects in exchange for their sugary secretions. Insects may be difficult to control until the ants are controlled.
Brown Marmorated Stink Bug
Poking-type feeding damage followed by decay on fruits, nuts, berries and leaves. Deformity in the healthy tissue surrounding the dead tissue. Brown spots can show up in stored fruit.
Monitor with traps, some broad spectrum pesticides may work. Researchers are working on finding effective controls, but no info has been released yet.
BMSB over winters in groups in dry protected areas, such as houses. If you find them on or in your home use the vacuum, squishing releases their defensive stink. See stopbmsb.org for more info. Feeding begins in spring when the weather warms up and continues until new adults go dormant for winter.
Lesions on the upper surface of the leaf, or on the fruit or stems, followed by orangish structures on the bottom side of the leaf, or on the fruit or stems, which produce spores.
Copper fungicide after harvest before fall rains and again in early spring for prevention of some\ rusts. Remove and destroy infected parts of the plant. If possible select resistant varieties. Many varieties have not been studied. Cedar-apple rust is a problem east of the Rockies.
Rust diseases require an alternate host, removing the host (within 900’ radius), applying fungicides, or removing infected parts may help. Check with your extension office to see what rust diseases in fruiting plants may be common in your area, and their alternate host.
Vertical splits in bark appear spring or early summer, usually on the south or east side of the tree. Disease or insect infestations may then occur.
Whitewash trunk and lower limbs with interior latex paint cut 50/50 with water each fall until bark has thickened. Avoid planting in frost pockets or where water collects in winter.
Injury occurs during pattern of warm days followed by freezing nights. Sap gets stuck in trunk, freezes, then rapidly thaws in the warm sun the next day, rupturing cells.