Old espalier in winter

How to Create a Step-Over Espalier Hedge

The ancient Romans were the first to espalier fruit trees, but the French really perfected the idea. The name, espalier, is from the French epaule, for shoulder.

Why espalier?

Well, it’s a challenge that any gardener would enjoy, first of all. Also, think of how much easier it is to harvest and maintain from a flat, short row of fruit trees. No climbing, easy pruning – what could be simpler?

How about using this method to make a step-over hedge around your vegetable garden? This is a unique way to grow a hedge that is both decorative and fruitful. It will take time to mature, but the end results will be the envy of your gardening friends.

Many apple and pear varieties can be planted as single tier espalier. You’ll need to choose spur forming varieties because of how you prune the plants. It should also be grafted onto dwarf rootstock, so your pruning is kept to a minimum.

Old espalier in winter

Even an old espalier is attractive.

Step One: Drive in strong stakes every 5 feet parallel to your path or the edge of the garden. Stretch a single training wire up to 20 inches above the ground level. You want to be able to step over it.

Step Two: In the late fall or early spring, plant your new apple or pear whips every 8 to 10 feet along the wire, and half way between the stakes. Make sure the graft is two to three inches above ground level. Water them and add mulch.

Step Three: To establish the framework, cut the whips back to just above the height of the wire, and above two vigorous buds. Prune at a 45 degree angle,  Attach it loosely to the wire.

Step Four: As the shoots grow from these two buds, and reach around 6 inches in length,  tie them in opposite directions along the wire. Continue to tie the shoots to the wire as they grow in length. In late fall, prune them back by one third, cutting just beyond a downward facing bud.

Step Five: Next year, continue fastening the new growth at the end of the main branches to the wire. Prune any side shoots that form on the two branches to 2 leaf pairs. In winter, prune side shoots to two buds and shorten the new growth at the ends of the main branches by one third again.

Continue in this way until the space between the plants is filled. Then prune the ends of the lateral main branches and keep any weak side shoots pruned away.

The two arms of the espaliered plant should now have produced fruiting side shoots or spurs. These fruit bud clusters, or spurs, will form close to the branches and are plump and furry, with cylindrical rings. Leaf or branching buds are smoother, narrower and longer.

Enjoy your new hedge, and take what you’ve learned further. Create another!

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