We visited a 200-year-old walled garden yesterday in County Offaly, a vast area of infrastructure exquisitely crafted to feed whole communities. The paths through the gardens were flanked with what appeared to be wooden fences covered in leafy vines. One closer inspection, they were not vines, but apple trees.
The branches were thin but heavy with what my daughter calls “applings.” Near them stood similar trees perhaps a century old, their gnarled trunks supporting immense candelabras several metres across. The pear trees nearby held a different but equally improbable shape, their trunks erupting into many thin shafts radiating like bicycle spokes across the wall.
Almost anyone who has a backyard or garden would do well to plant fruit trees for the years ahead. Most fruit trees, though, take more years to mature than most of us have to prepare, and take up more space than most of us have in cities or suburbs. Luckily, only a few centuries ago master gardeners developed a way to cultivate fruit in narrow spaces – one that yields more fruit, more quickly, and with a longer growing season.
Espalier is a method of growing a dwarf fruit tree along a wall or fence, binding it for support, and bending the branches to follow certain lines, as Japanese artists do with bonsai trees. Most gardeners started espaliers with a “maiden,” a one-year-old sapling that had not yet forked, and tied it to a staff of wood to keep it straight. Then they tied the desired branches to the fence or wall as they emerged, bending and pruning aggressively as the tree grew.
With the tree’s natural growth concentrated into only two dimensions, it creates many spurs looking for a chance to spread, creating more flowers and fruit than their conventional counterparts, and earlier in the trees’ life. The fruit can be picked casually while standing or sitting, with no need for the ladders or devices needed to pick many other fruit trees, and no risk of injury.
Growing a tree against a south-facing wall has another advantage; not only does the tree receive maximum light and heat, but the thermal mass of the wall absorbs the heat and provides shelter from the wind. In this way trees get a longer growing season, and can grow in cooler climates than they would ordinarily tolerate.
Apples seem the most common espalier tree, and pears were also common here when this practice was widely used – many varieties of each can be used, some more easily than others. In other climates I am told peaches, lemons, oranges, tangerines, figs, nectarines and plums can be trained.
We could not have grown those in northern Europe, of course, but we did have many fruits our modern supermarkets have left behind. Fruit like damsons, sorbus, medlar, quince, sloes and rosehips must have fallen from public favour during the energy needle – perhaps because they could not be bred for or kept in supermarkets -- but they might still grow in your area, as might dozens of fruits you’ve never heard of. Some of them might be trained this way, and I would be interested to see whether the same could be done to nut trees for protein.
Espalier trees can be grafted like other fruit, so that a single tree could grow multiple varieties on its branches. I know of no upper limit to how far an espalier can be stretched, nor of how many grafts a single tree can take; the BBC reports that gardener Paul Barnett in West Sussex, UK grows 250 varieties of apple on a single – admittedly non-espalier -- tree.
Homeowners might want to consider reviving this old technique, as it uses vertical space for production and decoratively covers the bare walls of houses, sheds, stables, chicken coops or compost bins. You could border your garden with an espalier fence, as we plan to, or you could turn a chain-link fence into something beautiful and useful. They are still trees, however, and take years to grow, so it’s best to develop a long-term plan for fruit as a resource.
It’s a matter that deserves some thought; before “fruit” became a candy flavour or chemical colouring in breakfast cereal, their vitamins helped families survive the winter months in a variety of ways. Some, like cooking apples, could keep for months in the attic. Many could be crushed and left to ferment, and the resulting liquid came laced with enough alcohol to kill many pathogens. They could be dried into rings or leathers, pickled like chutneys or mixed with some kind of sugar to make jam, preserving much of their vitamin content for decades.
Today, when people here visit a neighbour’s house or commemorate a holiday, they often bring jam or wine from their own trees. To many people today it might seem a twee bit of etiquette; to earlier generations, I suspect, such gestures were deposits in an unspoken community bank.
Top photo: Espalier saplings at Ballindoolin Garden, County Offaly.
Middle and bottom photos: Old espalier trees.