Who doesn’t love peaches? Melt-in-the-mouth, buttery, sweet and fragrant – nothing beats that bite into a ripe peach, and no ripe peach tastes like one you grew yourself and just picked, still warm from the summer sun. At least it shouldn’t, but too often home growers are disappointed with the quality of the fruit they grow, and that’s especially true with peaches in cooler parts of the country. If you have tried to grow peaches in the past and failed, or if you are thinking about it, there is a secret way to grow them that experts have been using for hundreds of years – espalier.
What is Espalier?
It’s a word that is often thrown around and although it sounds French and exotic, the principle is simple – instead of letting a tree grow into its normal round shape, spread out the young branches on a wall or trellis, so that it grows flat against the surface. Instead of a 3-D shape we turn it into a 2-D form, like a painting hanging on a wall. Since young plants have flexible stems it’s usually easy to re-direct them where we want and combined with some careful pruning the basic principle is easy to do. If you think about it, growing a climbing rose up a trellis is a kind of espalier, and we don’t think of that as complicated or ‘unnatural’.
Espalier are usually grown on a wall, but a fence or free-standing trellis works too, although some of the advantages of the technique are lost. You may have seen pictures of fancy geometrical shapes called espalier, but for peaches the usual method is a simple fan. If you want decorative patterns, apple trees are easier for that.
The Advantages of Espalier
This simple techniques gives us important advantages over letting your fruit trees grow naturally.
The tree occupies less space: In smaller gardens this is a big deal. A full-grown fruit tree can be 20 feet across, dominating and even engulfing a small space. Grown on a wall it isn’t even a foot thick, and takes up almost no space at all, leaving room in front for low plants to be grown.
It looks attractive: many people are put off growing fruit because they think it needs an orchard, and fruit trees are not especially attractive (although peach blossoms are beautiful, and so is a tree laden with ripe fruit. . .) On a wall the simple geometry – and the wall covered in leaves or flowers – is a handsome garden feature you will be proud of, and something that will gain you ‘bragging rights’ among neighbors and friends.
It protects from late frost: One of the problems with growing fruit, and peaches in particular, is the damage to blooms that a late spring frost can do. Peaches bloom early in spring, and once flower buds begin to swell they lose all their winter hardiness. Just a degree or two below 32 can kill those blossoms outright. No harvest that year! A wall traps heat during the day, and it may warm from inside the house as well, and that can often be just enough to keep the air a few inches away above freezing for those few hours before dawn when frost strikes.
It helps ripen the fruit: When it comes to peaches this is probably the main advantage there is. Peaches are a fruit that needs lots of sun and lots of warm and in cooler zones that may simply not happen. The reflected heat close to a wall and the exposure of every peach to full sun combine to bring every fruit to sweet perfection.
It ripens fruit earlier: Even in warmer zones there are advantages to espalier. The same variety on a wall will ripen 2 or even 3 weeks earlier, spreading the season and giving you fresh fruit of your favorite variety for twice as long.
Protection from birds is easier. You can drape a net over a flat tree much more easily than over a rounded bush, if they are taking your crop.
How to Espalier a Peach Tree
What do I need? – Peach trees usually don’t need a second, different variety for pollination, so just one tree is all you need. Of course, if you want fresh peaches over a longer period, by all means grow more, but you might find you need a bigger house. . . But seriously, the first thing you need is a tree. Choose one that is hardy in your zone, and preferably one that is at the smaller end of the size range. Some varieties naturally grow 12 or 15 feet tall, rather than 20 feet or more. Don’t worry, you don’t need that much room on your wall.
Then you need a wall. South-facing is best, but south-west or west facing will often do the trick as well. Don’t worry about windows – you can train the tree around them – but you do need a reasonable amount of hard surface. Brick or concrete are best, as they hold the most heat, but wood or vinyl will do just fine.
You need enough space to grow your tree. For a peach a space about 10 feet wide and 8 feet tall should be enough. If you have more space, then of course just plant more trees!
Since you need to attach your tree to the wall, there are two or three options. The easiest is to just drive nails in wherever you need an attachment point. But that can be difficult in brick. One way is to attach trellis panels, and tie your plants to that. It looks beautiful, but the further out from the wall your tree is, the more of the warmth and shelter you lose. A simple way is to use a system of horizontal wires. Attach them at either end of the space you are going to use, and put in strainers to keep them tight. Space wires about 12 inches apart, as close to the wall as you can get them – an inch or two is great. Another option is to attach long canes or steel rods to the wall in the fan pattern you use, adding more as you need them.
How do I do it? – For peaches the usual pattern is a simple fan, so your goal is a number of branches radiating out from as close to the base as you can manage. Look at the base of the tree and find the ‘dog-leg’. That is where your particular variety was grafted onto a root-stock plant. Only the parts above that point are your peach, so never cut below it, and remove any branches that sprout from down there.
Choose a young tree. Buy the youngest tree you can. It will grow quickly and you may not be able to create a good fan from an older tree. You can still grow an older tree on a wall, but you won’t be able to create the fan shape so well.
Now plant your tree with the ‘dog-leg’ facing the wall, as close to it as you can manage. Do all the usual things – enrich the soil, add some bone meal or superphosphate, and water well while planting.
Now for the hard bit. Even if your tree is 6 feet tall, we are going to cut it back to between 12 and 20 inches above the ground. Don’t worry, it will grow back amazingly quickly. If you can see buds, great, cut above 2 that are on opposite sides of the stem. If you can see anything, don’t worry, they will soon appear. You need to make this cut in early spring, before the tree blooms or leaf’s out. Cut at a slight slope slanting away from the top bud.
Let the tree shoot out and wait until mid-summer to prune again. Now select the two strongest stems that are growing out to the sides, and try to find two that are of equal thickness. Remove all the rest flush to the trunk. Tie those two stems flat, at about 45 degrees from horizontal, and you are on your way. Next spring shorten back those two stems as you did with the original trunk, and train two more branches. Keep doing this until you have as many arms as you need for your fan and the space you have. Alternatively, as in our photo, allow a central stem to keep growing up, fanning out the side branches.
To keep all the stems growing evenly, raising a stem more vertical will make it grow more, lowering it more horizontal will make it grow less. Within a few short years you will have blooms, and you are on your way to the best peaches you have ever tasted – your own, home-grown peaches.