An espalier fruit tree screen can be a great way to grow fruit in your small-space garden.
It can also help you improve privacy, create a windbreak, or screen an ugly wall or fence or an unsightly view.
Espalier trees may take a little more maintenance than standard trees, but will take up less space, and often cast less shade, than fruit trees in other forms.
Their simple, flat form can also make it easier for you to harvest the fruit from your trees.
When you create an espalier fruit tree screen against a south-facing or west-facing wall, it can also allow you to grow fruits that might not ordinarily do well in the climate where you live.
To find out more about espalier fruit tree screens and get some simple instructions for how to make one, read on.
What is an Espalier Fruit Tree Screen?
The term ‘espalier’ is a French word, which means ‘something to rest a shoulder against’.
Originally, the word was used to refer to the framework against which trees or plants were trained. But it has now come to refer to both the structure and the plants themselves.
Any fruit tree that is trained to grow flat against a wall, fence or other support structure can be referred to as an espalier fruit tree.
A pleached fruit tree is a related concept. This is also all about growing fruit trees on a flat plane.
But with pleached trees, the horizontal branches start higher up the trunk – forming a kind of raised screen that can work very well to improve privacy when positioned in front of a lower wall or fence.
Horizontal branches eventually grow together to create a single form, which can be great as a summer privacy screen.
Positioning an Espalier Fruit Tree Screen
An espalier fruit tree, or multiple trees, can be placed up against a wall or fence.
The orientation of the wall or fence is important because it will determine which fruit trees can successfully be grown.
South or west-facing structures are sunnier and will allow a wider range of fruit trees to be grown in this way. But there are also fruit trees that are suitable for growing against shadier east-facing or even north-facing walls.
Another interesting thing to consider is that espalier fruit trees don’t just have to be restricted to the outer edges of your garden.
By erecting a trellis as support, or a series of sturdy posts to hold the supporting wires, you can potentially create an espalier fruit tree screen to separate one part of your garden from another – to hide recycling bins, or provide privacy for a patio or seating area, for example. Or to create a series of garden rooms.
You might think that placing an espaliered fruit tree screen across your garden would make it feel smaller. But sometimes, partitioning your garden can have the opposite effect and actually make it feel bigger when placed in the right position.
Just be sure to think about the shade that it will cast, and make sure it will not have a detrimental effect on other plants you are growing or wish to grow.
Choosing Your Fruit Trees
Most fruit trees commonly grown in the UK can be espaliered to grow flat against a wall, trellis or fence. But if you are trying to create an espalier fruit tree screen, it is important to choose the right fruit tree or trees for the location.
Trees that will do best on a sunny, south-facing wall include:
On any south, west or east-facing wall, you will usually be able to grow:
And on a shadier, north-facing structure you can grow:
- Cooking apples or crab apples (James Grieve is one dessert and cooking apple that can cope very well with shade)
- Sour cherries (Morello, Nabella)
- Some plums (Czar etc.)
- A few cooking pears (Catillac etc.)
Typically, to create an integrated screen of trees, the trees you choose should be positioned around 3m apart.
Preparing and Planting Espalier Fruit Trees
There are two options if you would like to create an espalier fruit tree screen.
The first option is to purchase maiden whips and train these yourself into a flat form. By far the easier option, however – and the most common – is to purchase young trees which have already been trained into this form.
Ready trained trees already have branches which have been trained horizontally on their side of the main trunk.
You can buy these as bare-root specimens over the winter months, or buy pot-grown fruit trees from garden centres throughout the year.
Usually, pre-trained espalier fruit trees have two layers of horizontal branches, and will quickly grow to create three or four.
To prepare your espalier fruit tree screen:
- Choose your existing wall or fence, or erect a new trellis support.
- Install a framework of around 4 horizontal wires, which match the distance between the horizontal branches on the tree you have chosen.
- Secure these horizontal wires firmly to the structure, using eye bolts or similar.
- Prepare a bed (or place large containers) at the base of the structure, a little out from the base to avoid any rain shadow.
- Dig holes for your fruit trees, around 15cm out from the structure (if growing in the ground). Or place your containers in the same position.
- Plant your fruit trees, making sure that they sit at the same level in the soil or growing medium as that at which they were originally planted.
- Water well, and firm the soil or growing medium well around the trees. Mulch well with compost/ well-rotted manure or other organic material.
- Use twine to tie side branches at several places onto the horizontal wires you have placed. Make separate loops around the wire and the branch, to prevent issues with the branches being damaged by rubbing up against the wire.
Use natural twine rather than plastic for environmental reasons. Hemp/ flax twine is one good option to consider for an eco-friendly garden.
Pruning an Espalier Fruit Tree Screen
The main job when creating and maintaining an espalier fruit tree screen is pruning.
After planting your espalier fruit tree, leave the main stem to grow through its first spring/summer.
The following winter, prune the central shoot down to the next support wire.
Leave three healthy buds to form your central leader, and two side branches, which can then be tied into this next support wire.
Repeat this process the following year, so branches can be tied into the upper support wire.
Between July and September, maintenance pruning involves pruning the shoots growing from horizontal branches. Leave just 3-4 leaves on each. Shoots growing from the main stem should also be shortened to around 3 leaves.
Over time, continue to tie down new growth at the end of horizontal branches to the wires on your support, to stop them from growing vertically.
Continue to prune, water and provide nutrients for your espalier fruit trees over time and you should be able to keep them in check, healthy and productive.
They should provide a screen while the leaves are on the trees, and an attractive – though bare – architectural form in winter. And they should provide plenty of fruit for you and your family, even in the smallest of spaces.
If you want to make the most of all the space that is available to you, then choosing trained trees can certainly be an interesting option to consider for your garden.
And remember, the trees won’t just provide an edible yield – they can also deliver a range of other benefits and can improve the air quality and amenity in your garden.
A permaculture garden designer, sustainability consultant and freelance writer, Elizabeth works as an advocate for positive change. She aims to inspire others to reconnect with nature and live in a more eco-friendly way. She also tries to practice what she preaches as she tends her own forest garden, polyculture beds and polytunnel. See her personal website here.