Pruning Espaliered Belgian Fence Apple and Pear Trees

From the end of February to anytime now is a good time to go out and prune your pear and apple trees, and this is especially important if you are growing them espalier-style in a Belgian-fence pattern.  I’ve been interested in growing fruit trees for several years, and around six or so years ago I took a class at the Home Orchard Society that taught me how to graft fruit trees–well worth it.  I then went to their Rootstock Sale and Scion Exchange–held every year in March, and this year happening on March 17th if you live in Oregon–and bought several rootstocks and then was able to select all the scion wood I wanted for free!  When you consider that buying grafted mini-dwarf fruit trees will cost you around at least  $25 each at a gardening center, and I was able to make mine for around $5 apiece, you could see why this appealed to my frugal gardening nature.

As they grew, my husband put up the framework of cedar posts and orchard wire that they would need to grow upon in order to achieve the espalier effect that I wanted.  Espalier is what the artist Monet (or more likely, his hoard of gardeners) used to train the lovely apple trees that grace the perimeter of his garden at Giverny, which are absolutely stunning when they are in bloom in the spring.  Espaliered forms of fruit trees are nice in that the fruit is easy to pick, because it is most often done on mini-dwarf fruit trees that will only reach 4-6 feet tall at maturity–no ladders needed, another distinct advantage.  (They can even be grown in large containers!)  These trees are basically pruned so that they are rather two-dimentional, kind of flat, and each tree resembles a letter “Y” in shape, with the trunk the bottom of the Y, and just two main arms that come out from the trunk.  When the trees are positioned close together, the arms of the trees eventually at maturity form a diamond pattern.  These arms are tied to slender sticks, and then I can position them at any angle I want on the wires, so that I don’t have to cut all the strings to reposition each time.  This style of growing allows you to pack in several mini-dwarf fruit trees in a small amount of space.  I have eight trees in a fifteen-foot run that’s only about 15 inches wide, with trees grown on two-foot centers.  (If you go to my garden book recommendations page, I have a book listed that talks about pruning and training plants that I recommend you look at if you are interested in trying this.)  Once the trees are well on their way to maturity, at least 3 years old, you can add bulbs and other flowers to the row, which I’ve done to coincide with when the fruit trees are in bloom.  Late tulips usually bloom at the same time.  Be sure to give the tree roots enough room–they are shallow rooted, and you don’t want them to have to compete for root space with an aggressive bed partner, because the tree might not win.

 

Crabapple in bloom, with 'Angelique' pink late tulips and lots of blue forget-me-nots

So it was the end of February a couple of weeks ago, and out I went on a sunny afternoon to deal with pruning the apples and pear.  Here are the varieties of apple and pear trees that I grow:

1.  Bartlett pear, grown on a a OHXF333 rootstock, a pear rootstock

2.  Liberty apple, grown on a P-22 apple rootstock (mini-dwarf apple rootstock)

3.  Hudson’s Golden Gem apple, grown on a M-27 apple rootstock (this rootstock is basically the same as the P-   22, so they are essentially interchangeable for apples)

4.  Whitney crabapple, grown on a M-27 apple rootstock (this I am growing as a polinator for some of the other trees)

5.  Kingston Black cider apple, grown on an M-27 apple rootstock (normally you need a sweet and savory apple variety to make good cider, but this apple is great on it’s own for cider-making)

6.  Stayman Winesap apple, grown on an M-27 apple rootstock (this is the second Winesap I’ve tried–so far the first one died after three years, and this one is pretty small compared to the other apple variety I started the same year.  They taste wonderful, however, so I am being patient and will see what happens over time.)

7.  Tompkin’s King apple, grown on an M-27 apple rootstock (I cannot recommend this apple variety enough.  The flavor is amazing, and the apples are quite large.  Our best tree so far, in my opinion.)

8.  Spitzenburg apple, grown on a B-9 apple rootstock (this rootstock would not have been my first choice, as this one creates a tree that reaches 9-12 feet tall, but I put it on the end of the row, and am letting one of the arms get quite long, and so far it’s happy.)

I also put the pear on the other end of the row, because pears always want to get big, even on mini-dwarf rootstock, so again I can let one of the Y-arms grow out way long, and it seems to be working.)

Last year was the first main year that I allowed several of these trees to bear fruit.  Up to that time, you pluck all the flowers off so that they don’t produce fruit too early, because when they start to produce fruit, they will stop growing, and if they haven’t filled in the frame or shape in which you want them to grow, then you are messed up.  My trees are taking around five years from grafting to fruit production stage.

I was by myself when doing this recent pruning, and I discovered very quickly that it is hard to hold a pruner in place and take a picture with your other hand (I am not an octopus!)  But I will show a few pictures to give you a little idea of how it went.

A before-pruning jungle. The tree on the far left is the pear, and notice that there are a lot of branches coming out of the center of the tree--these will need attention.

 

Another shot of the before pruning jungle

 

Tools I used: hand pruners, eye protection, gloves, and a lopper, which is in a later picture

 

More of a close-up before pruning shot. The first step is to get rid of the obvious: any dead or broken branches, cut them out of there. Branches that are rubbing and crossing each other, cut one of them out. Notice how long the side branches are growing off the main arm--these will be shortened in the pruning process.

 

You will notice that I am growing these trees up a steep slope.  Ideally, you’d do it on a flat gardening area, but this is what I had to work with, and I’m not going to let a slope stop me from having wonderful fresh fruit!.  I have to get a little creative on the arm angles of the trees so that the patterns look right on the slope, but it’s just a matter of stepping back and looking at the overall shape, and then making adjustments to it.

After you have cleaned out all the obviously dead, diseased, rotted stuff and crossing branches, then the next step is to actually step back and take a look at what you have.  You’ll have several side-shoot branches coming off the main arm of each tree.  If there are any that are really tiny and weak, I tend to prune those back to the arm, because they won’t be able to support the fruit as it grows.  (Apples get heavy as they grow.)  Next, step back up to the tree and start with one side-shoot. You are looking at those little bumps along the side shoot, which are buds.   You want to trim it back so that there are around 5-6 buds per side-shoot.  This may mean you’ll be cutting a lot of length off those shoots, but that’s okay.  If you don’t what happens is that those long floppy side shoots produce flowers at the end of the branch, and then you are left with big heavy apples growing way out on the end of the branch, which can result in the branch breaking under the weight.  You want to keep the side shoots fairly short, 12 inches approximately should be the longest. (You will see as I go along that I break that “rule at times”.  Pruning is a little like art, and a little like zen–probably no two gardeners will do it exactly the same, but if you follow these basic principles for most of the tree branches, you should be fine.)  The fewer buds you leave, the larger the fruit will be, but there will be less of it, so keep this in mind.  Also don’t leave the maximum number of buds on a weak little side shoot, because it will break under the weight of the ripening fruit.  Don’t be afraid to step away and back from the tree, so that you can see what the results of your pruning look like from a bit of a distance.  This also helps to prevent mistakes, and cutting where you didn’t exactly intend to.

This shows what buds look like on a branch--they are the little bumpy things that are sticking out along the branch.

You want to prune your trees when they have these little buds on the branches, rather than after they are leafing out or blossoming, because the idea is to shorten all the side branches before they start producing leaves and flowers.  If you wait too long, they will produce flowers way out at the ends of all those long branches.

 

Now, the pear tree . . .

After the fact--this is how much I had to cut out of the crotch of the pear tree--yikes!

I took a pruning class, and one phrase stuck with me:  always have clean crotches when you prune (I know . . . now you’ll never forget that, will you???)  Meaning, these trees are formed in a Y-shape, so at the base of that Y, where the two arms meet the trunk, you want to make sure to cut out any branches that start to grow there, because they will be suckers and sap the energy from the tree as it tries to produce fruit.  I am a pruning wuss at heart, and have a hard time whacking back a plant, but this had gone on way too long, and it was ruining the shape of the espalier, so out those extra branches came!

Pear with a clean crotch, baby!

Notice that this tree always wants to get too big for this frame, and so I trick it a little and let it think it’s growing big by running the left arm of the tree up and along the top wire.  This just gives a nice finished edge to your espalier, but if you prefer you could just cut it off a tiny bit higher than the top wire, and that would work as well.  But I want art, so I create an edging.

Acloseup of the top of the espalier--this is what I mean by edging the top of the frame with one of the arm branches from each tree--it creates a line along the top, and to my aesthetic sense looks more finished and pleasing to the eye.

Remember that that top edging is one of the productive arms of the tree, so I have short branches coming out of this arm that I prune back to 5-6 buds, because I don’t want to cut all the fruit off that arm.  I want fruit, and as much as they will produce!

These two trees are partly pruned on the lower parts of the arms, and I haven't gotten to the top yet, as you can tell by the long branches that are sticking out at the top. These arms I continue to tie down to the top wire to create the edge along the whole top.

 

The finished results:

Espaliered Belgian fence after spring pruning--note the nice line along the top of the frame! You can see the diamond pattern much more clearly now!

 

You will notice there are some gaps in the line.  This is because I have 3 trees that I had to restart, so they are a few years younger than the big ones.  They will catch up in time.  You have to be patient with trees–plant them and then wait five years for fruit!

Another shot of the pruned espalier Belgian fence.

 

I have a short video from about three years ago that covers a little bit more about grafting fruit trees and espalier.

 

Are you growing fruit trees this season?  What types do you grow?  Would you like to learn how to grow or graft and prune fruit trees?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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About AthenaMG

Athena McElrath is a Master Gardener with a love for gardening, decorating and cooking inexpensively. She enjoys working out in her urban garden in Southwest Washington State, watching the hummingbirds and other birds and insects, eating the wonderful vegetables, fruits and herbs that she produces from her garden, and just having a great time hanging out under the pergola with her family and friends (that is, whenever it stops raining long enough).
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19 Responses to Pruning Espaliered Belgian Fence Apple and Pear Trees

  1. anne says:

    Wow! I would love to have fruit trees. We are having some trees planted in our yard next week, but the only “fruit” one will be a crabapple.
    :)

    • AthenaMG says:

      Cool! You can make a jelly or jam out of the crabapples, I believe. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a nice comment!

    • James Kirksey says:

      I am planning a Belgian Fence of southern apples (Zone 8), starting this year. I plan to buy used sawed off power poles set in concrete and use mobile home anchors to secure my wires on each end. This will give me a ground, also. My structure must be strong enough to withstand hurricane winds, because I am less than 40 miles form the Gulf of Mexico. My fence will be about 10 feet tall and 200 feet long, holding about 100+ trees of about 50 varieties. Initially single tree trunks will be slanted at 45 degrees for a distance of about 13.5 feet. (Grafts on M111, semi-dwarf.) My trees will be planted in order of ripening date, allowing me to start eating apples in mid June at one end and work my way to the other end by late October. I may surface graft some of the varieties where they cross to add even more flavors to these multiple varieties. My row has been dug deep and organic compost material buried to support the root system. I have planted Red Top Clover, which I plan to allow to set seed for each year instead of replanting. If this provides too much nitrogen, I can always mow it before it seeds for the following year. I know when this tall fence is completed, before the trees are visible, neighbors will wonder what that crazy old man is doing. However, if all goes well in five years they will see.

  2. Beth says:

    Fruit trees – someday – you’ve made me want them NOW!

    • AthenaMG says:

      Well, start now with a couple of mini-dwarf ones, because they take 3-5 years before you get fruit off them! Put them each in a large container–you could always plant them in the ground later if you want to.

  3. Shannan says:

    Okay this sounds pretty advanced. I do like the idea of espaliered method so I appreciate your video – I did pin it!

    • AthenaMG says:

      When I started out, I took an inexpensive pruning class to help me get started, and that helped a lot. See if your cooperative extension office or Master Gardeners offer anything. It’s really a lot of the same principles that you use when you prune a shrub, if that helps a little. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a nice comment–hope you visit again!

  4. Melinda says:

    My husband just pruned our fruit trees this spring. It was painful to watch – but they do look so much better now!

    • AthenaMG says:

      I feel your pain–I don’t much like pruning myself because I’m always afraid I’ll make a mistake with it, but have to say the results–hopefully more fruit this year–will be worth it! Thank you for stopping by and leaving a nice comment!

  5. Since visiting France we are more and more impressed by structure in the garden and espalliered trees count. Your being a Master Gardener reminded me that we should utilize the ones near us more. They have wonderful programs here in Maryland, we just forget the resource. Jo @ Let’s Face the Music

    • AthenaMG says:

      Yes, French potager have definitely influenced me–they have some really beautiful gardens there, with a focus on vegetables and fruit. And do call on your local Master Gardeners–that’s what they’re there for–to help home gardeners!

  6. I lost an apple tree last year. It was on the property when we bought the house 12 years ago. But I planted 3 other fruit trees last fall. I’d love to have a little orchard!

  7. Susan says:

    I always wanted to try espalier. This is inspiring!

    • AthenaMG says:

      You should give it a try–it actually doesn’t have to take up very much room if you have a smaller garden, or you can really go for it in a larger space! And thank you for the nice comment–appreciate it!

  8. Pingback: Apple Harvest October 2012 |

  9. Stephanie Wachtel says:

    Thanks for posting this! We planted our orchard last year with 11 dwarf fruit trees from Leuthardt Nursery (Haralson, Spartan, State Fair, Gran Spur, Red Delicious, Connell Red, Freedom, Honeycrisp and Zestar). Although we live north of Boston, I took a road trip to the nursery in Long Island just to see the beautiful espalier they have onsite and drove back with my trees. John talked me through the different varieties he had hand selected and they’ve settled in nicely. If all goes well we’ll try grafting to a few mature crab apple trees that are already on our property.