Meg Liptrot gives her fruit trees a shoulder to grow on and reaps a generous crop.
Fruit trees are the most productive plants you can grow per square metre, when compared with veges. It may take a bit of practice to get right, but once you've mastered it, espaliering fruit along a fence is an effective fruit-growing technique.
There is a long history of fruit-growing using vertical structures. In Europe, picturesque walled gardens, often in stone or brick or a combination of both, feature fruit trees trained against walls. The term "espalier" comes from France, but originates from the Italian word "spalliera", which means "something to rest the shoulder (spalla) against". Ultimately, the word refers to the training of a fruit tree along a fence or against a wall.
In parts of the Southern Hemisphere, where winters are cold, growing fruit against solid walls facing the sun ensures ideal growing conditions. Solid walls which have thermal mass retain heat during the day when direct sun hits their surface. When the sun sets, the heat continues to emanate from the wall, heating cold-sensitive plants and encouraging the ripening of fruit.
Deciduous fruit trees, such as pears, suit a tiered, horizontal method of espaliering. This technique involves securing selected branches when they are pliable and young and every year pruning and training the next tier of branches, and pruning back vegetative growth in favour of fruiting spurs.
When branches grow vertically, they will put out more non-fruiting "vegetative" growth, because of the hormones found in the tips of growing shoots. Flower buds and fruit are encouraged when branches are in a more or less horizontal or vase position.
Structure and design
The best wall on which to espalier in the Southern Hemisphere is north-facing, with the wall running from east to west. This ensures the tree grows evenly and branches do not constantly grow in one direction to reach the sun.
At our property we have only a few possible spots for espaliering fruit. One sturdy timber fence down the side of our house runs north to south and faces west, which isn't ideal but still works. I have secured two horizontal Number 8 wires to run the length of the fence, one at just over a metre high, the other 1.5m high. Here, I have espaliered a pear tree, with the third tier growing along the top of the 2m fence. We've used our southeast facing Brustics panels to support fan-trained figs by hooking loose wire loops into the panels to hold the branches in shape.
To screen an unsightly metal shed in a client's garden, I designed a sturdy frame on which to espalier a plum. The frame consisted of black-lacquered, rust-proofed reinforcing iron bars, threaded through three support posts. Alternatively, masonry walls allow the option of drilling eye bolts and attaching lengths of stainless cable along which to tie branches.
Select three healthy looking shoots from your main trunk and remove the rest, they will all grow to a similar length. Once the branches have reached almost the desired length and they are still flexible, start training them into a "v" - one branch to the left, one to the right - and leave the other to grow upwards.
These branches can be tied with soft fabric ties at a 45-degree angle. They will continue growing.
At the end of the growing season, usually in autumn, the stems can be tied down to their final horizontal position. You should by now have two branches trained along the wall and they should be relatively even in length.
The branch that is still growing upwards should be pruned at around 60cm long. The cut should be angled at 45 degrees about 1cm from a bud and pointing in the direction that you want your uppermost branch to go. Below this should be at least two more healthy buds and one for good measure. Next growing season you will have three more strongly growing shoots to create the next tier in your espalier, and so on. Espaliered pears suit three or four tiers for best fruit production.
Summer prune any unwanted vegetative growth by two thirds to encourage fruiting spurs, or wind the shoots into your horizontal structure, gently securing them in place.
Most deciduous fruit trees suit espaliering. Dwarfing apples, for example, are available to buy as a pole-like "cordon". Even though double- or triple-grafted fruit trees are great choices for small gardens in terms of pollination, it's better to have two separate trees espaliered for your pollination requirements, or to select a self-fertile variety.
In a rush of enthusiasm years ago, I chose a triple-grafted pear. This made the job more difficult as I have a few different varieties as branches growing at different speeds on the same tree. You also must label very clearly where your varieties are to avoid pruning a feeble branch only to realise it was one of your grafted branches. I have managed to avoid this so far.
Also, find out whether the variety of fruit you are interested in is "tip" or "spur bearing". "Tip bearing" means the fruit form at the end of branches and shoots. "Spur bearing" means fruit are produced along the length of a branch. It is quite hard to prune an espalier attractively when you have "tip bearing" branches and the whole thing gets overgrown, or you get no fruit at all in an attempt at tidiness. "Spur bearing" is the way to go. Make sure you get advice from the fruit expert at your garden centre.
Supercharge the vege garden
Have you caught the edible gardening bug and are keen to take your edible garden to the next level? A recently launched website, podgardening.co.nz, is worth a look. Pod is a partnership between Paul Thompson, NZ Gardener columnist and a former presenter on Maggie's Garden Show, and Viv Stone, a producer and web designer.
The website, and its Facebook page, www.facebook.com/PodGardening, offer free advice and "help for anyone growing or wanting to grow their own fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers using natural and sustainable methods".
Paul is a passionate organic gardener and natural presenter, and his enthusiasm shines through in the Pod TV section, where clips can be viewed on subjects ranging from liquid manures to beneficial insects, and how to grow seasonal crops. He lives with his young family in Piha and his love of the natural life is clear in the photos and clips.
Points of difference which caught my eye were the photo essays and interviews with interesting people, such as sculptor Andrew Drummond, and their gardens.
The viewer gets a sneak peek behind the garden fence for some tantalising inspiration, with new profiles popping up monthly.
Pod's recipe section features dishes by guest chefs and seasonal inspiration for the kitchen.
Pod's Top 5 Seed Bundles with funky designs are arranged around five themes: Fast, Easy, Saver, Eco and Daring, to make seed selection for your vege garden that little bit simpler.
* We have five prizes to win, each consisting of 10 packets of seeds from Pod's Top 5 selections for November. To enter the draw email winwithheraldonsunday.co.nz and enter the keyword "Pod" along with your details. Entries close at 11.59pm on Wednesday, October 31.By Meg Liptrot