Espalliered apple trees are a beautiful and fairly compact way to grow apples in the garden. They need the support of a system of wires or similar (you’ll notice in the pics mine are getting by on a cane framework at the moment – I’ve been nagging for the wires to appear for ages… ) but they don’t have to be against a wall – they make an attractive divider in the garden. If you are going for a wall, South and West facing walls are best. On North facing walls the trees don’t get enough sun and on East facing walls the early morning sun can melt frosted flowers too quickly, damaging them more than if they’d had the chance to slowly warm as they would on a West wall.
When buying your trees you need them to be on a dwarfing root stock and it’s best to mention to the nursery that you are planning an espallier – I didn’t and their initial form had to be overcome somewhat. A maiden whip (single stem) is a good starting point. Also you need your flowers to be fertilised, so if you are growing more than one ensure they are from compatible pollinating groups and if only growing one tree you need a self-fertile variety. When choosing a variety avoid any tip bearing trees – you need spur-bearing varieties. You can espallier prune pear trees, but stone fruit trees (cherry, plum etc) perform better with fan training.
Prune your apple trees in late winter/early spring using clean, sharp tools and angle any cuts so that water will not sit on them. Always cut to a bud that’s facing in a useful direction – not into the wall or the main stem for example.
I’ll start with a pruning diagram and then explain step-by-step. If you have a new tree, or one that is younger than mine you simply complete the steps until you run out of branches!
1. Decide at what level you want your next tier of horizontal branches. I’ll be going for four layers on this tree. Three or four is a good number, most won’t manage more because of the dwarfing root stock. You can have just one for a ‘stepover’ tree.
2. Making the new tier of branches. Cut the main growing stem above the third bud above your desired branch level and tie to the support. These three buds will form the new main stem and the two branches. If this is to be the uppermost tier, cut above two buds as you won’t need a new upright stem.
Throughout the next year – tie the new lateral shoots to canes at 45 degrees to the horizontal as they grow.
3. The New Laterals. Lower the new lateral shoots to the horizontal wire (gently!) and tie them in. Cut these branches back by a couple of inches to an upward facing bud.
In late summer – cut back shoots that have arisen from the laterals and the stem to 3 or 4 leaves.
4. The established laterals. Cut back the shoots you trimmed in the summer further to one or two buds. Also entirely remove any crowded or awkwardly placed shoots. Trim the tip of the lateral back by a couple of inches to an upward facing bud if the tree is still growing into its space, or further if it’s filled its allotted space. Replace all ties.
Don’t skip the summer pruning – if you do it all at once in winter you may force your tree into biennial bearing and then you’ll miss out every other year until you can coax it back to annual bearing.
And that’s it!
Edited to add: I did my summer pruning and photographed it.