Pruning established espaliered fruit trees


Robin Gale-Baker, from Sustainable Macleod, discusses the pruning of established espaliered fruit trees. This is one of a series of articles she has written about growing fruit trees (see right hand sidebar). She has also written a number of articles about growing various vegetables, growing various herbs and general growing techniques.

The photo is of an espaliered pear tree where I (Robin) have pruned the left hand side but not the right hand side.

With the arrival of a warm, wet Melbourne Spring, my espaliered fruit trees have gone gangbusters! The trees are putting on masses of new growth in all directions. However, most of this new growth actually needs to come off. Here are some tips to keep your espaliers healthy, in check and fruit bearing.

There are many espalier shapes, but here I will focus on the two most popular, namely a fan shape for citrus and horizontal shape for apples, pears and stone fruit. In both cases, your aim is to create a tree that is flat, uncluttered and full of fruiting spurs upon which the fruit will grow. Additionally, hard pruning will allow good air circulation which will prevent disease.

There are two main procedures: tying down new, sappy growth while it is flexible and pruning away outward and vertical growth.

With horizontal espaliers, begin by identifying which side branches you want to keep. If they have reached the end of the wire, prune the tip to prevent further growth. If you are starting on a new wire (that will be a higher wire) then select and tie down one side branch each side of the main trunk. Begin with this for two reasons: first, you are unlikely to accidentally cut this branch off and, second, if it snaps you can then remove it and select another to train along the wire. When tying, leave about 1cm between the branch and wire to prevent the wire growing into the branch or rubbing on the branch in windy weather.

With fan shape trees, choose which branches to expand the fan and tie these on to your frame, pruning any that have reached the maximum height or width of the frame at their tip.

You have now established the new frame and it is time to prune the foliage.

With both shapes, the foliage that protrudes forward needs to be removed or cut back to a fruiting spur. If it looks like a green, leafy, water shoot then prune this at the base, even if it is growing horizontally (water shoots generally grow vertically but on espaliers they go up and out). If there is wood at the base with fruiting spurs or buds, then shorten this for the moment and later you can thin the fruiting spur branches so that the branch isn’t too cluttered. At the end of the branch nearest the trunk, you will see two basal leaves on the wood; count three leaf groups above this and cut just above the third one. Shortened branches prevent growth hormone from going upward and re-direct it into these short stems to create fruiting spurs. Space fruiting spur branches at about 12cm intervals along the branch and remove any in between.

Once the outward branches have been pruned on a horizontal shape, start on the vertical growth on each side branch. Prune any water shoots to the base and shorten any woody branches as above. Prune away any growth beneath the side branches too. With a fan shape, thin out the branches, selecting the strongest and tie them to the frame. Of course, remove any diseased, crossed or broken branches.

With horizontal shapes, there will come a time each year when you need to prune the main trunk. By cutting the trunk just above the new wire, you force the buds just beneath the cut to develop and these become the new side branches. A vertical shoot will then develop into the main trunk and grow up to the next wire for the process to be repeated the following year.

Protect your espaliered fruit from birds and possums with netting. Because they are flat, espaliers are easy to net. Net can be hung over the top wire and draped down both sides even when an espalier is against a wall.

Espaliers require a lot of attention. In winter, prune for shape and in spring prune at least three times, a month apart, to reduce foliage and maximise fruit growth. It is surprising how quickly espaliers can get out of hand when there is plenty of rain and warmth, but attending to them is well worth the effort. They are very attractive, and will reward you with beautiful flowers, foliage and fruit.

  2 Responses to “Pruning established espaliered fruit trees”

  1. Hi Denise, thanks for your question.

    I sympathise because I have the same problem with my espaliered Beurre Bosc. Mine is planted next to a prolific, espaliered Williams but I get very few from the Beurre Bosc. I believe that the problem is one of pollination. Beurres need two pollinators to do well. Often the bees will pollinate from other varieties in other people’s gardens which takes care of the problem. However, if you are in an area with few other pear tree varieties or ones that do not flower at the same time as yours, then you may need to plant 2 other cross-pollinators. Cross-pollinators for Beurres include Williams Bon Chretien (also known as Bartlett), Nash, Sensation, Red D’Anjou, Winter Nellis and Nijisseili.

    Cheers Robin

  2. Thanks for the great article on pruning. My beurre bosc espaliered tree is about 7 years old and I think I need to be more attentive to keeping it pruned. However my issue is that it has few flowers and, as a result, minimal fruit. As per your method, I’ve pruned branches back to three leaf groups and am pretty sure I can identify fruiting spurs. Not sure what I’m doing wrong – would love any advice.
    Cheers Denise

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