The ancient practice that’s perfect for modern gardens


The defining characteristic of an espalier is its flatness but beyond that the choices are many. There are tiered “horizontal cordons”, criss-crossing “Belgian fences”, triangular “palmettes”, knee-high “stepovers”, walk-below “archways” and other defined shapes besides. But you can also keep espaliers more freewheeling, simply pruning a plant into a 2D version of its natural shape.

The Englands advise to first decide what you want from an espalier – including both its size and appearance – and then to choose a plant that fits your vision and the climatic conditions of your site. Some plants, such as apples and pears, are better suited to formal shapes, while others, such as citrus and most Australian plants, are best treated more informally.

The citrus aisle at Merrywood Plants

The citrus aisle at Merrywood PlantsCredit:Jenny England

Once you have a picture of an espalier in mind, pruning can be as simple as removing anything that doesn’t fit your plan. Chris advises the setting up of wires or trellises in the desired shape at the outset so that you know where to make formative cuts. He says you should choose a specimen with lots of lower branches (“be fussy”) that you can immediately start training to your support. Then do more formative pruning when the plant starts to grow in spring and summer.

If you are starting with a bare-rooted tree or shrub, however, you need to cut it back hard now to encourage new shoots to form, before doing more formal cuts and training when the weather warms.

One of the most popular shapes is the classic horizontal cordon, which works for a variety of plants, including apples, pears and olives. To start one of these, Chris says gardeners should do a general prune now (exactly how hard will depend on whether the plant was bare-rooted or not) and wait until summer to select the stem to grow upwards to form the central leader and two branches to form the first horizontal tier, attaching the limbs to the support with clips or ties. Then, when the central stem reaches the next tier, you should cut it to buds to force shoots for that level. And so it will continue.

“There is a little bit of work in it, but with such limited ground space in gardens we need to use the vertical spaces,” Chris says. “It’s exciting to see what you can do.”

Brighten up dull spots with variegated plants.

Brighten up dull spots with variegated plants.Credit:Pamela Jane

Plotlines: What to do in your garden right now

Remove any suckers from trees and shrubs as, if left to grow, they can take over and divert nutrients and water from the main stem.

Now that leaves have fallen, celebrate the beauty of shapely trunks and fine bark, such as that to be found on maples, crepe myrtles and silver birches.

Keep houseplants away from heaters and spray with fine mists of water to improve humidity.

Brighten dull spots with the patterned leaves of variegated plants. Variously marbled, fringed and freckled lamiums, begonias, acubas and daphnes are just some of the possibilities.

Plant globe artichokes in frost-free regions, both for their edible flower buds and architectural form.