Living structures: creating and maintaining

Constructing a living structure in your garden could be anything from a woven willow hedge or secret den to apple trees trained as archways and arbours. The structures can take you from one area of the garden, be the destination in themselves or divide and enclose spaces. The creation of these involves simple training methods or more complex techniques such as espalier, cordon and pleaching. As long as the plant is amenable to being pruned, the only boundary is your imagination.

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Living structures: creating and maintaining
Living structures: creating and maintaining

Quick facts

Suitable for A wide range of trees, shrubs, climbers and fruit trees
Timing Summer, late summer, autumn and winter
Difficulty Moderate

Suitable for...

A wide range of trees, fruit trees, shrubs and climbers that respond well to being pruned include:

  • Willow (Salix), apples, pears, cherries, plums and figs
  • Ornamental trees such as sorbus and laburnum
  • Other shrubs and climbers that can be spur pruned such as wisteria, campsis and vines
  • Many hedging plants are suitable for pleaching or making into raised hedges – ash (Fraxinus), beech (Fagus), chestnut (Aesculus), hornbeam (Carpinus), lime (Tilia) and plane (Platanus)

Different types of living structures

  • Pleaching produces effects similar to hedges on stilts, except the growth is woven
  • Hedges on stilts produce a thicker screen than pleaching and are less labour intensive to maintain
  • Woven willow structures such as 'fedges' – a cross between a hedge and a fence – are fun to make but need annual maintenance
  • Arbours and tunnels, arches, gazebos and bowers require more skill to form but are usually striking
  • Espaliers, fans and cordons are methods usually used to train fruit trees, but can be used for ornamental plants such as cotoneaster and pyracantha. They can be trained in a range of creative designs

To see a wide selection of trained fruit, visit RHS gardens and West Dean Gardens free as part of RHS membership.

When to do it

  • Fruit trees trained as espaliers, fans and cordons are pruned in summer
  • Deciduous raised hedges are pruned in late summer and evergreen hedges are pruned in summer
  • Trees such as sorbus can be trained and pruned in winter

How to make a gazebo from whitebeam

Erect a ready made plain gazebo framework made from galvanised tubular steel 3.4m (11ft) in diameter and 2.5m (8ft) in height.

  • Select young whitebeam (Sorbus aria) trees with fairly flexible stems. They do not need to be clear of lower side branches as these can be removed later
  • Plant each tree approximately 1.3m (just over 4ft) apart
  • Allow the trees to establish for a year before starting to remove lower side branches (if necessary), a few branches each year
  • To allow space for a table and set of chairs, aim for 2m (6½ft) of clear stem before the lower branches start
  • When each tree reaches the top of the arch, train the central leader over the top and into the middle of the structure before cutting back
  • As side branches grow over the top, weave and tie them in horizontally
  • In time, the structure will become self-supporting and the frame can be removed

How to make a hedge on stilts

  • Create a well covered framework as you would for pleaching
  • Each winter, prune back the previous season's growth by at least half to encourage branching
  • A hedge on stilts can also be clipped in the same way as you would for a regular hedge
  • The resulting stilt hedge produces a much thicker screen than pleaching


Trees and shrubs: buying
Trees and shrubs: planting
Hedges: planting
Hedges: selections


There are few pest and disease problems. However, common problems that affect fruit trees may be seen. For example;

  • Aphids may cause stickiness on chairs in arbours and on plants themselves
  • Woolly aphids can cause damage on apples and shrubs such as pyracantha
  • Apple and pear scab causes unsightly markings on leaves and distorts fruit
  • Bitter pit causes brown sunken spots on fruits and a bitter flavour in severe cases
  • Codling moth damage is seen as tunnels inside the fruit running to the core

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.