Espalier training trees

Training apples and pears as espaliers is a space-saving way of growing fruit on a wall or fence. They require little pruning once established and are attractive in blossom and fruit and architectural during winter. Ornamentals such as Pyracantha are sometimes trained as espaliers.

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Growing pear 'Williams Bon Chretien' as an espalier. Image: Tim Sandall/RHS

Quick facts

Timing Summer
Difficulty Moderate

Suitable for...

Apples and pears that bear short fruiting spurs (not tip bearing). This method may also be used for ornamental wall shrubs such as Cotoneaster and Pyracantha.

When planning to grow a tree as an espalier, make sure you buy one on one of the following rootstocks: 

  • MM106 is most suitable for small apple trees with three or four tiers but M26 can also be used
  • MM111 is best for large apple trees or poor soil
  • Quince A is suitable for pears

Trees may be purchased with one to three tiers already formed or grown from one-year-old trees (maidens).

Planting and initial training

Firstly you need to establish a training system against a wall or fence. Erect horizontal wires 35-45cm (15-18in) apart between posts, or straining ‘eyes’ on walls or fences.

Trees should be planted 3.75m-6m (12-20ft) apart, according to their vigour. See our advice in trees and shrubs: planting for more information on planting trees.

Pruning an unfeathered maiden (one-year-old tree with no sideshoots)

  • When planting an unfeathered maiden, cut back the main stem to 30cm (1ft) from the ground
  • Allow the top three buds to grow out in spring, then train the top one vertically up a cane, and tie the others to canes at 45 degrees to the main stem. In November, lower them carefully until they are horizontal, tying them in with soft twine
  • Cut back the vertical stem to within 45cm (18in) of the lower arms, leaving two buds to form the next horizontal layer and the top bud to form the new leader. If growth is weak, prune back the horizontal branches by one-third to downward facing buds
  • The following year train the second tier in the same way as the first. Cut back competing growths on the main stem, and cut sideshoots from the horizontal arms back to three leaves above the basal cluster (the bunch of leaves denoting the start of the current season's growth)
  • Repeat the process until the trees have produced their final tier and grown horizontally to fill their allotted space. Then allow two shoots to grow: tie them to the top wire and cut them back to within 2.5cm (1in) of their base the following winter

Remove the blossom in spring, for the first three years, so all of the energy goes into plant growth.

How to prune established espaliers

Trees should be pruned annually as growth slows down in August.

  • Cut back sideshoots growing from the horizontal leaders to three leaves from the basal cluster, 7.5cm (3in) long. Shoots from previously pruned sideshoots should be cut back to one leaf from the basal cluster, 2.5cm (1in) long
  • If any secondary growths develop after this pruning, cut them back to the base in September. Sideshoots on the vertical stem are best removed completely
  • If there are large amounts of immature or secondary growth when cordons are pruned in August, delay pruning until mid-September. If this does not reduce secondary growth, prune in winter instead using the same method

Renovation pruning for restricted forms of apples and pears should be started in the winter, followed by summer pruning the following year.  In order to reduce over-vigorous regrowth, it should be carried out over 1-2 years.

Spur thinning

Clusters of fruit buds may need to be thinned after seven or eight years; alternatively, a few can be done each year in the dormant season (November to March), reducing over-complicated spur systems to one or two fruit buds.

Replacing missing arms in an espalier

In mid-to-late summer, chip budding can be used to replace missing arms on apple or pear espaliers; this process involves grafting a chip of wood with a live bud beneath the bark.

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