Finding enough room in your garden for all the plants you want to grow can be a challenge. As well, many gardens have large blank walls of wood, brick or stone, or fences around the property. These tend to be forgotten when planning the garden, but they offer lots of interesting opportunities for growing plants. These walls and fences can also be unattractive, so putting plants on them will turn them from eye-sores into eye-catchers.
Most gardeners know that will some trellis it is possible to grow attractive climbing plants on walls, but far fewer consider the possibility of growing shrubs on them. This technique originated with the desire to grow fruit in colder areas. Gardeners discovered that peaches, cherries, apricots and even figs would fruit well when attached to a warm, south-facing wall – much better than they would growing out in the open. This technique, called by its French name of espalier, was widely used in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it has become much less common. From fruit to flowers is a small step, and it was not long before flowering shrubs were spread out on walls too.
Suitable Plants for Espalier
Any shrub that has long, flexible shoots can be grown on a wall. Because the stems are tied to the wall, they must be flexible enough to bend and lie flat. This technique is very useful for plants that like lots of warmth, but it works well for any suitable plants. The flowers and fruits will be displayed beautifully, and show much more than on a free-standing plant. Here are some plants that grow well as espalier:
- Flowering Cherry Trees – these beauties take up some room in the garden, but on a wall they need no space at all
- Crape Myrtle Trees – these thrive in the warmth of a sunny wall, and flower right into fall, even in colder areas
- Redbud Trees – because they flower right on the main stems, these pack a lot of punch in a small space
- Pomegranate Trees – the large fruits look terrific against the foliage, at least before you pick and eat them!
- Fig Trees – these are always popular plants for walls, often producing a second crop in the extra warmth available
- Peach Trees – these to benefit from the warmth, and will grow a whole zone further north
- Butterfly Bush – with their spikes of red and purple flowers all summer, this easy to grow plant trains well onto a wall
- Mock Orange – not at first an obvious choice, but a great way to grow this often leggy plant
- Evergreen Magnolia – coveted by everyone who lives in areas too cold for it, a wall gives just the necessary protection to ensure success
These are just a few ideas – any plant with long stems is a suitable subject for espalier, and you are only limited by your imagination.
How to Start an Espalier
The first thing to do is prepare your wall. If it is wood, and you don’t mind nails in it, then you can just hammer a small nail in wherever you need to attach a stem. The more traditional way – and this is easiest for brick and stone walls too – is to attach a series of horizontal wires across the wall you plan to use. Use galvanized, chormed or plastic-coated wire and fittings to prevent rusting. Securely attach anchor pins in a vertical row at both ends. These are usually spaced 18 inches apart. Use turnbuckles at one end so that you can tighten the wires when you attach them, or later if they stretch. With these horizontal wires in place it is easy and quick to tie a stem onto them, making growing your espalier quick and fun.
Now plant your shrub or tree at the base of the wall. It is a good idea to prepare a large planting hole, with plenty of organic material added. For a fig-tree the opposite is true, as these fruit best in poor soil. Add some stones and rubble for planting your fig-tree, especially if you have rich soil already. Place the plant in the hole with the root-ball almost touching the foundations of the wall. For some plants, in colder areas, that drier soil at the base of a wall is the secret of success. Water you new plant well during the first season or two, and fertilize it the same way you would if it was growing out in your garden.
Pruning Espalier Plants
When you tie in the branches of your tree or shrub, use a loose tie to allow the stem to grow in thickness. As shoots form, bring the first ones along the lowest wires, and add levels as they grow. You can either train the branches horizontally along each wire, or simply use the wires to spread the plant out. There are several traditional patterns used for espalier, but some of these are best for fruiting trees, and flowering trees do not need so much careful training – just tie them flat against the wall.
Prune your tree at the same season you would if it was growing normally in the garden. As a general rule, prune spring flowering plants in summer and fall flowering plants in spring, but for fruit trees more detailed pruning is needed to get a good crop.
Have Fun with Espalier
Some new gardeners are put off by the fancy name and mystique around espalier, but it is actually very easy. Just choose a suitable plant and go for it. Your instinct will guide you in how to tie in and prune your plant best to look best, and the results in just a few years will amaze you. If you have empty walls, this is the quickest and best way to cover them, and what plants you use is only limited by your imagination, and to some extent by the growth habit of different plants. If you think it will work, it probably will.