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Assorted plants growing in garden bed with cream brick wall in background
When you want to grow trees but are low on space, the trick is to spread out!

What is espalier and how do you do it?

The horticultural practice of espalier involves training a fruiting or ornamental tree, shrub or woody vine to grow in a pattern flat against a wall, fence or freestanding frame. Practical and beautiful, espalier is a fantastic way to make the most of a small outdoor space or hide an unsightly surface. Landscape designer Brielle Economos says espalier creates a striking focal point. “It can also transform vertical spaces into an opportunity for a compact and productive orchard,” she says. 

The right conditions

An espaliered plant requires the same light conditions as its regular-growing counterpart. “A full-sun location such as a north-facing wall is ideal for fruiting plants like apple or citrus,” explains Brielle. “A shadier aspect may better suit a camellia or Japanese maple.” Always check the plant label information before buying a tree to see if it’s suitable for growing in your space. If planting in the ground, ensure the soil is well-draining and enriched with organic matter. If growing in a pot, espalier specialist Chris England recommends choosing a large rectangular planter. “This means it sits flat against a wall or fence, whereas a round container protrudes more,” he says. In cooler climates, an espaliered fruit tree against a wall or fence can be a good idea as the surface absorbs and radiates heat, offering extra warmth and protection. However, in frost-prone zones, additional precautions are necessary. “Use hessian covers when growing citrus, or go for deciduous fruit trees as frost won’t harm them as much,” says Chris.

Tools and trees

Almost any tree can be espaliered. “Evergreen and deciduous fruit trees (both regular and dwarf forms) such as lemon, lime, apple, fig, pear and olive, and ornamental shrubs and trees like gingko, camellia, magnolia, gardenia, star jasmine and rosemary are all suitable candidates,” says Chris. “You’ll need a good pair of secateurs, a sturdy structure to secure the branches to – such as a wooden lattice – and soft, flexible ties or plant clips,” he advises. If training against a wall or fence, you can construct a framework using heavy-gauge wire. When choosing a tree, Brielle suggests looking for one that has the growth pattern of an espalier with a good central stem and several evenly spaced horizontal branches. “Alternatively, choose a young plant as they are quite flexible and pliable, and will be easier to train and tie the branches to the frame,” she says.

A gloved hand uses secateurs to cut back green leaves

Style guide

There are a number of espalier styles, which can be divided into two main types: formal and informal. “A formal design has a central leader with symmetrical growth on either side,” explains Chris. “An informal style simply aims to fill the entire space with branches.” For beginners interested in attempting formal espalier styles, Chris recommends the horizontal cordon, which is characterised by a central stem with horizontal branches every 30-40cm. “It’s a classic shape and also one of the easiest,” he says.

After securing a support structure (such as lattice) in place, plant the tree in the centre of the framework. Loosely tie the trunk to the frame first, then the side branches, and prune excess growth. Water the tree in with diluted seaweed solution to help reduce transplant shock and encourage faster root establishment.

Other formal styles include fan or vase, Belgian fence and candelabra.

Whatever shape you choose, pruning is necessary. “It’s important to prune at least twice a year, in summer and again in winter,” says Chris. “Summer pruning should be done two or three times during the season, depending on the growth of the plant. A general tidy is all that is required in winter.” 

A pair of hands tying a plant to a bamboo stake 

Plant a backyard orchard

Find out how to grow dwarf fruit trees, for maximum edibles in a small space.

Photo Credit: GAP Photos, Alamy Stock Photos

Health & Safety

Please make sure you use all equipment appropriately and safely when following the advice in these D.I.Y. videos. You need to be familiar with how to use equipment safely and follow the instructions that came with the equipment. If you are unsure, you may feel it is safest to consult an expert, such as the manufacturer or an expert Bunnings Team Member.

Grave health hazards are linked to asbestos, which may be in homes built up to 1990. Health hazards may result from exposure to lead-based paints in older materials and copper chromium arsenic (CCA) treated timber. For information on the dangers of asbestos, lead-based paint and CCA treated timber and tips for dealing with these materials contact your local council's Environmental Health Officer. You can also use a simple test kit from Bunnings to indicate the presence of lead-based paint.