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Espalier trees

 
pollinator
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About 12 years ago I started a small orchard in a favorable place on my property.  I doubt the orchard was more than 1/4 acre, but the plan was to grow peaches, apples maybe bush cherries and perhaps a couple other more exotic fruits for extra fun (I live in zone 6b).  I arranged the trees in rows and even ran a drip irrigation system to it for dry years.  

Unfortunately I had some health issues and I wasn't able to take as good of care as I would have liked and the trees have mostly not done well since.  I am tinkering with the idea of tearing out the old trees and replanting, but this time setting them up on an espalier system.  Partly I want to do this because I did not do a good job of trimming when the trees were young and now mowing is a real pain.  Also I recently purchased a new, bigger tractor that won't be as maneuverable as my previous one.  I do plan to acquire an offset flail mower that will improve ease of trimming.

My main question is twofold.  

1). Does anyone have any experience with espalier planting and have any tips that could be passed along?

2). Would I need to rip out my old (still living, basically healthy, but not ideally shaped) trees or could I train old trees onto espalier wires/lines

I am not in a huge hurry so I have time to consider my plan.  Ideally, I will be able to get my 35 hp utility tractor between rows and mow closely to the trees themselves.

Thanks in advance,  I certainly appreciate any guidance.

Eric
 
Eric Hanson
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I have to apologize for my above post.  I thought I was placing it in the fruit tree section.  I have no idea how it got to the soil section.  If a moderator wanted to move it to the appropriate section I would appreciate it.
 
Eric Hanson
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Thanks Nicole!
 
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As some of you know, "espalier" is a French word meaning "lots of really hard f* ing work!"

It also shuts out a lot of the ecological functions that help itself and the surrounding ecology.

It would be even more work to cut down existing trees and train them into an espalier.

Espaliers can make sense for people with really, really small plots in really big cities who want to maximize fruit production and minimize other aspects of nature.

John S
PDX OR
 
pollinator
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Winter time is tree pruning time. Late January, February.

What exactly do you expect from espalier? Just to open up lanes for the tractor and mower?

Espalier, as I have read, was designed to produce maximum fruit from minimum space. A sunny wall was often part of the method in order for warmth to enhance growth and to provide a convenient base for the tree supports. The shape was designed to be, as well as compact, reachable for easier harvest. I have not seen any positive comments on mature espaliered trees standing unsupported - good chance they need support permanently.

So if the trees are presently more or less healthy it would seem, on the face of it, a far bigger bang for the buck to build (or prune!) what you've already got going. 1/4 acre doesn't sound like a huge area to have to apply a modified mowing regime to if, after consideration, the existing trees and your new tractor can't make nice.

I'm sure there are many factors in play here, but just from what you've mentioned it's hard to get a handle on where you're going with the espalier idea.


Cheers,
Rufus
 
pollinator
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Espalier trees may be worthwhile next to a building or a fence. To me, they look tortured and unnatural. Also too much work. You can gradually remove the lower branches from your existing trees, if they are in the way. A growing tree is worth much more than one not planted yet.
 
pollinator
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Pruning existing trees to espalier should work, so long as the limbs aren't too big.  If they are too big, try pruning one third or fourth of the tree, doing this once a year for three/four years.  

They may not need supports, if aesthetics aren't a concern.  Or they may, depending on the length of the branches.  I have some apples, a pie cherry and a fig all growing against a fence;  none of them are tied to wires, although I did tie the two apples to each other one summer (I untied them the next winter and the branches stayed horizontal).  They all get a light summer prune (except the fig) to remove any branches growing directly away from the fence, and a light winter prune to keep them within their allotted spaces and shapes (except the cherry which is prone to a fungal disease from winter pruning).  

Unlike some, I don't find the maintenance very difficult.  They get pruned once or twice a year, mulched with a bucket of compost once a year, and then of course the harvest, which is very manageable, seeing as the trees are only as tall as me.  I picked about 150 apples off each tree this year, and usually get a gallon of cherries every year--this one needs to be netted against birds, but it's easy to do because of its shape and size.  The fig has been in production for only two years--I got about two dozen figs this year.
 
John Suavecito
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It's probablly easier to start with rootstock than chopping down your existing trees.
John S
PDX OR
 
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Galadriel could you upload a picture to let us see how much space each tree occupies and how they are positioned relative to each other and the sun?
 
Galadriel Freden
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My trees aren't rigidly espaliered, but they are confined to two dimensions and kept to the height of the fence.  The fence is 2 m high, faces west, and the trees are roughly 1.75 m apart.  I took these photos this summer (2018).
DSCF0046.JPG
[Thumbnail for DSCF0046.JPG]
From far left: cherry, Spartan apple, currant, Laxton Fortune apple
DSCF0047.JPG
[Thumbnail for DSCF0047.JPG]
From far left: fig (kind of hidden), cherry, Spartan apple, currant
DSCF0018a.JPG
[Thumbnail for DSCF0018a.JPG]
close up of Laxton Fortune apple
 
John Suavecito
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This is a really interesting solution, Galadriel!  I love it when someone finds or invents something that fits their situation and shares that idea with other people.  
John S
PDX OR
 
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It sounds like your problem is with the grass, not the trees. And I think it would take longer to grow new trees or retrain the ones you have, than to eliminate the grass. Have you considered putting something else under the trees? A deep wood chip mulch might help. Another possibility would be to break up the sod and sow white clover or a mix of low-growing herbs that don't need to be mowed (and may help feed the trees).
 
Eric Hanson
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Alicia,

Sorry its taken me a bit to get back to this thread.  At present, my trees aren't terribly productive, but they do appear healthy.  I assume that they have been munched on by our abundant deer population.  You are correct in that part of my thought was to make the trees easier to manage grass rather than the other way around.  I can get plentiful wood chips from my own land as I need to trim back autumn olive bushes that grow aggressively around here and are in fact a terrible invasive.  I did another post recently titled "A Compost Story."  The gist was that compost did wonders for one of these trees already and I can certainly add more chips to keep down grass and weeds.

Most of my trees are peach trees.  Do peach trees have a limited lifetime?  Mine are 12-13 years old and one of my thoughts was that they may need to be replaced soon anyways.

Thank you so much everyone for helping out this novice.

Eric
 
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A number of comments:
1) If you rip out your existing trees and try to plant new ones, with the apples at least, you may have problems with replant disease.  (This will stunt your new trees.  Commercial growers fumigate the soil to sterilise it to prevent this)
2) You can certainly prune your existing trees to a fruiting wall form, by lopping off all branches which intrude into the alleyways, (and if necessary, fostering the growth of new branches in the plane of the tree row)
3) Commercial apple orchards are now almost all planted with relatively dwarfing rootstocks, supported on trellises, and trained to a flat fruiting wall.  Interestingly, these are treated as "crops", with an expectation that they will last 20 years or so, at which time they will be ripped out, (the soil fumigated), and replanted.  If you have larger rootstocks, they will last far longer - 100 years for full size roots.
4) In passing, peaches: yes peach trees are relatively short-lived, much shorter than apples.
5) If you do not prune/train to a fruiting wall, a very effective understory management plan is to spread cardboard under the trees, covered by a thick mulch of wood chips, (ideally with "ramial" wood chips, branches up to 2 3/4" in diameter, (see research done at Laval University,  in the 80's or 90's)
6) Espalier, properly, involves a lot more than training to a relatively flat plane.  It involves both training to a specific geometric pattern and regular summer pruning to encourage development of fruit spurs rather than vegetative growth.  (This is not intuitively obvious, but a fruit bud has 5 leaves for each bud, while a vegetative bud has only one.  So while the tree is markedly controlled in shape and size, the photosynthesis area is maintained.)
7) If, after all this, you still want to "start afresh", you could consider sawing off the existing trees a couple of feet off the ground, and grafting in new scion wood, (with bark grafts) in the spring. (Place as many scions as will fit comfortably on each stub - that way even if some fail, you are likely to have at least one succeed on each tree.  Cut out extras the following year, when you are sure your graft is healthy and solid.)  Then carefully prune and train your new growth into whatever shape you fancy.  You could also take the opportunity to introduce new cultivars into your orchard.
 
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If it were me, I would take advantage of the pluses that you currently have going for you.  You have strong stock and strong roots and they have proven they will grow where you are.  I live in the desert and with the continuing drought I decided to cut all my trees back to 18 inches tall and either dwarf them or espalier them.  I have had success with this.  The other plus in doing this is you do not have to wait so long for them to fruit as buying something new would, and then perhaps them dying for one reason or another. Also, you can correct all the wrongs of limb placements that they came with from the nursery.

I would give them an opportunity to "regroup".  By dwarfing or/and espaliering you will be able to have a lot more trees in your small area.
 
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In my experience (mostly apples and pears), fruit tree production often unintentionally turns to "espalier-like" structure as the weight of the fruit pulls branches down, and prudent harvesters prune off sucker-whips to keep the harvest (on short fruit-bearing spurs) within easy human reach.  Don't hassle with the circus of posts and wires, and just prune your trees every year like you should.  They may look funny/tortured, but hey it works.

-B
 
Eric Hanson
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David, Davilyn, Shane,

Thanks so much for the ideas!  I am trending towards doing a heavy pruning and re-train the branches more laterally than as of now.  As the trees are approaching 15 years and are all dwarf stock, can anyone tell me approximately how much more life they may have left in them?  As I have ready access to plentiful chips, I have done some serious thoughts about adding mounds of wood chips infused with winecap mushrooms and possibly adding in some comfrey plants for some extra synergy.

Thanks much,

Eric
 
Davilyn Eversz
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This last winter I was doing some heavy researching concerning grafted trees.  For a decade now I've tried to track down places that sell "own root trees", with little success.  There was a foundation in England that was engaging in it but when the founder died they went back to grafting.

Research led me to the understanding that grafted trees suffer heavily from pestilence and disease and are not long lived.  I think some of this is intentional so the commercial nurseries can keep selling you their product.  About five years ago I started seeding my own own root trees with stock/seeds from Oikos Tree Crops and J.L. Hudson.  Which are succeeding.  So I got brave and chopped all my grafted trees in the back orchards down to just the root stock.  For years then they produced little fruit but they never ripened.

This year all the fruit ripened.  Everything was still small - about 1-1/2 inches but they were incredibly delicious and the trees were covered with fruit.  And interestingly enough the peaches were a light green inside which I found really cool.

The main reason all this grafted nonsense started was to have smaller trees but I see there is a big tradeoff in lack of health and longevity.  Well, in five years these trees are 10'x10' bushes and for some reason the birds are not interested in the fruit and the bushes are much easier to take care of than a 12' tree.

Experiment.  I now have all my fruit and nut trees in an air pruning pot set up within a hydroponic set up.  They are dwarfed or espaliered and the nice thing about the dwarves is that I can move them around because they are in pots.  Some of the pots are in 55 gallon hydroponic barrels sunk into the ground up to the rim which keeps the water cool here in the desert.

If it were me I would leave the ones in the ground and experiment while starting replacements if need be, in air pruned pots. You can keep them in air pruned pots indefinitely.
 
Shane Kaser
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15 years is still young in apple tree years.  They are very resilient trees.

Wood chips are an excellent idea.  Healthy soil mycorrhizae offer immense support for healthy trees.

I have limited experience with comfrey polycultures, but if there ever were a place for this tenacious accumulator, it's as a tree-crop understory plant!

Cheers
-b
 
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Galadriel Freden wrote:My trees aren't rigidly espaliered, but they are confined to two dimensions and kept to the height of the fence.



Galadriel, how old are your espaliered trees? This may be a solution for my situation. Thank you!
 
Galadriel Freden
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Joylynn Hardesty wrote:

Galadriel Freden wrote:My trees aren't rigidly espaliered, but they are confined to two dimensions and kept to the height of the fence.



Galadriel, how old are your espaliered trees? This may be a solution for my situation. Thank you!



Late reply Joylynn, but I would say my apple trees are about 5 years old and the Morello cherry is more like 7.  After such heavy fruiting last year, the Spartan apple has maybe two fruits on it and the Laxton Fortune apple didn't even flower.  Lots of little Morello cherries though.
 
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