How to Espalier Apple Trees - Tips for Pruning, Multi-Grafting, Dwarfing Fruit Trees

For producing big crops of fruit such as apples from a small spaces there are three options. You can Espalier the fruit trees by selective pruning and training them to grow against a wall. You can regularly prune the trees to fit into a small space with trees planted in pots or in the ground. Or you can graft branches of different species onto a single hardy rootstock. Or you can choose dwarf varieties that produce regular size fruit on smaller trees, or dwarf them yourselves.

This article describes the various method and offers a series of tips to make it work. Apples are very health and are pack with dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients

Espalier - the Art of growing fruit trees in small spaces especially on walls and frame supports
Espalier - the Art of growing fruit trees in small spaces especially on walls and frame supports. Source: Public Domain

Espalier Trees

This refers to the method or pruning and training apples, pears and other fruit to grow against a wall in a set of horizontal tiers or layers, or diagonal lines. This saves space makes, makes a very attractive display and make the fruit tree easier to prune and look after in terms of controlling diseases and pests. The fruit are much easier to pick and you can leave them on the tree until you need them. You can buy a ready-trained Espalier starter tree from some nurseries. Or you can buy bare rooted trees in the winter and prune and train the trees yourself. You can also buy an established fruit tree in a pot, prune it hard and train it to grow up and along a wall.

Choose your support

Planting tips

Espalier pruning and training

Fruit Tree Pruning Instructions

There are three main pruning methods for different types of trees

The Central-Leader System - used for pruning pear trees, apple trees and sweet cherry trees. A "central leader" is the major central trunk or stem. This pruning method aims to encourage a focus on the central trunk, by regularly pruning the lateral branches and developing a 'Christmas Tree' Shape.

Central Leader - Trim Terminal Shoot
Central Leader - Trim Terminal Shoot. Source: Public Domain

The Open-Centre System - used for nectarine, apricot trees, peach, plum and sour cherry trees. The aim is the prune and remove the central leader to keep the centre open. Pruning encourages 3-4 main branches set at wide angles to grow out at an angle of about 60 degrees to the base with about 5 secondary branches on each. Regular pruning keeps the shape and stops the tree getting to tall or wide. The open centre encourages sun and air-circulation into the centre and makes it easier to manage diseases and pests and to pick the fruit.

Central Leader - Trim side branches
Central Leader - Trim side branches. Source: Public Domain

The Modified-Leader System - used for nut trees, this can also be used for apple and pear trees. The idea is to give the central leader and 3-4 lateral branches equal importance.

Regular pruning can be used to restrict the tree growth so that it does not out-grow the space available. The Central-Leader Design is probably best for a small garden or apple tree in a large pot.

Central Leader - Prune to develop a 'Christmas Tree' Shape
Central Leader - Prune to develop a 'Christmas Tree' Shape. Source: Public Domain

General Fruit Tree Pruning Instructions

Dwarf Apple trees

Dwarf apple trees have major benefits compared with standard sized apple trees for small gardens. Dwarf trees makes it easier to prune, deal with pests and diseases and harvest the fruit, and keep the size in check. The quickest way to get a dwarf tree is to buy one bred or grafted for the purpose. The other way is to graft the fruit tree onto a special rootstock that will dwarf the tree. There are several varieties of rootstock available for dwarfing for the various types of fruit tree. Dwarf apple trees need much less care than full sized apple tree, and a lot less pruning. Dwarf fruit trees are ideal for a small gardens, including those grown in large pots. Almost every species of apple tree can be dwarfed.

Multiple-grafting - 'Fruit Salad' Trees

Several varieties of apples can be grafted onto a single root stock. Also you can graft orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit branches onto the one tree. Stone fruits can also be combined by grafting. The major benefit of multiple-fruit drafted trees is that it avoids having an over-abundance of one type of fruit at any one time. The various species will ripen at different times. It also allow multiple fruits to be harvested in very limited space from a single root stock or large pot.

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Some of the basic shapes for Espalier
Some of the basic shapes for Espalier. Source: Public Domain
Nice Espalier design using a frame bordered by flowers
Nice Espalier design using a frame bordered by flowers. Source: Public Domain
Circular Espalier design against a wall
Circular Espalier design against a wall. Source: Public Domain
Fan shaped Espalier design for an apple tree
Fan shaped Espalier design for an apple tree. Source: Public Domain
Making maxium use of a wall using Espalier
Making maxium use of a wall using Espalier. Source: Public Domain
Espalier fruit trees combined with a vegetable garden design
Espalier fruit trees combined with a vegetable garden design. Source: Public Domain
Espalier can be used for a wide variety of fruit trees including citrus
Espalier can be used for a wide variety of fruit trees including citrus. Source: Public Domain
A lovely arch decorated with Espalier
A lovely arch decorated with Espalier. Source: Public Domain