‘Espalier’ is a French word, but originates from the Italian word “spalliera” meaning

“something to rest the shoulder (spalla) against”.

When 15th Century French fruit farmers were pressed for time and money and wanted to increase their fruit yields, within the confines of their farms and walled gardens, they came up with a clever solution: to remove the extra branches of the fruit trees and train those that remained into distinct patterns, they could then use their space more efficiently and grow their trees closer together. The tradition of training fruit trees in this way has been practiced by generations of gardeners, and there are many patterns and tree types to choose from. With attractive blossoms in spring, leafy green branches in summer, fruit in the autumn and neat branches in winter, it lends itself to the symmetry and neatness of a formal garden style. However, with increasingly smaller spaces for our gardens and the need for multi-functional and beautiful boundary walls as well as fruit, it is a great technique for the modern garden too. In this blog we look at all you need to know about how to espalier a fruit tree in your own garden.

Traditional espalier patterns to try!

Start in autumn

Start preparing your site now in order to get off to a good start in late autumn.

Choose your site

Your fruit tree will need sun, so choose a site or wall that is west or north-facing and not on a south or east facing wall.

Delicate beauty of espalier in the garden

Delicate beauty of espalier in the garden

Support structure

Make sure you have a firm support for your tree. Most espaliered trees are grown against a wall with wall bolts holding strong horizontal support wires, spaced 45 to 60cm apart up the wall.

Choose your tree

The most successful fruit trees to grow include apples, pears and figs. However, you can pretty much use any kind of fruit tree, including citrus, olives, peaches, plums & nectarines. Bear in mind though, that if you want them to fruit successfully, you will need at least two trees next to each other and the more the better so that they can cross-pollinate. Other ornamental trees that can be espaliered include Holly, Snowball Viburnum (Viburnum tinus) and you could even try some of our indigenous trees like Dovyalis, Virgilia, Dombeya, Calodendrum – who knows they may lend themselves to espalier. Bear in mind it is also easiest to start with a young whip or sapling fruit tree with few developed branches and rather wait for the branches to grow so you can easily guide their position.

Old espaliered trees trained to save space.

Old espaliered trees trained to save space.

Plant your tree

Plant your tree at least 15 to 30cm away from the wall to allow air to circulate freely around the branches and also so that the root ball is not squashed against the wall footings in the future.

Espalier adds something to your garden all year round
Espalier adds something to your garden all year round

Espalier adds something to your garden all year round

Secure your tree

When attaching your tree to the support wire, don’t thread the branches around or through the wire or tie them directly onto the wire. This will make it very difficult for you to prune the branches in the future. Instead, use a figure of eight plastic tie or piece of old stocking to fix it to the wire in the same way you would stake to a rose bush. This will allow movement and growth of the tree without it becoming damaged if the tie is too tight.

Year by year trimming process:

Year 1
In autumn or winter stake (with a bamboo pole) the vertical or leader stem and trim it about 5-7cm above the bottom wire. Make sure there is a good bud directly below the cut, and angle the cut upwards as if you are cutting roses. The first horizontal branches or laterals as they are known, will develop just below the wire.

Espalier adds something to your garden all year round
Espalier adds something to your garden all year round

In summer, the leader should have continued to grow upright from the cut. Tie it loosely to the stake so it can continue to grow upwards. Pick two strong lateral branches around the height of the first wire and tie them to a stake positioned in an upward slant about 40 degrees to the ground. At the end of the summer, bring the laterals and their support in line with the first horizontal wire. Trim back any lateral shoots by two thirds.

Year 2

In winter, cut back the leader a few centimetres above the second wire, making sure there is a good bud just below the cut. Cut it at a downward angle. Trim back the laterals by a quarter if they aren’t growing vigorously to promote more growth in summer. Completely remove any of the extra laterals you trimmed back in summer to concentrate growth on the laterals you want.

Espalier adds something to your garden all year round
Espalier adds something to your garden all year round

In summer, train and support the leader to the third horizontal wire. Pick two strong laterals to make the second horizontal and train then as you did the first year. Prune all shoots on the first horizontal to three or four leaves. Shorten the shoots on the vertical stem by two thirds, as you did in the first year.

Year 3

Repeat the process for year two but leave intact the shoots you cut back on the first horizontal. Once you have a third layer of horizontal branches, cut off the vertical leader. The tree won’t cope with pushing sap up the branches to a fourth layer unless you have grafted the tree onto an exceptionally vigorous root stock. Prune the bottom two branches in winter as you did in year 2.

Espalier adds something to your garden all year round


The shoots you shortened by two thirds in summer should bear fruit. Prune back to about three leaves any lateral shoots developing on the horizontals in summer. Cut off any over vigorous upright shoots growing from the horizontals in summer. Expect the growth on the bottom horizontal to be slightly less vigorous than the top horizontal. Prune away old, unproductive or over crowded growth in the winter.

Happy gardening!


Garden & Home Gardening May 2007 article by Shirley Wallington

Brickel, Christopher & Joyce, David. (2011) The Royal Horticultural Society Pruning & Training. Dorling Kindersley

Photo credits


Garden & Home Gardening May 2007 article by Shirley Wallington