The Art of Shaping Trees: Pleaching and Espalier

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Pleaching and espalier are tree-shaping techniques in which trees are trained to grow along a flat plane. Popularized by the Romans and 17th century French and Italian arborists, these techniques have endured and now bring beauty and function to our modern landscapes.

Pleaching and espalier are both tree-shaping techniques that contribute artful, distinctive looks to a landscape or garden.

Espalier: Trained into a Pattern

The practice of espalier–training trees to grow in a specific pattern along a flat plane—has been around for hundreds of years. It was the Romans who introduced this growing technique in which trees grow along flat supports such as walls or fences.

Nowadays examples of this growing technique can be seen in public gardens, on large estates (think the Biltmore in South Carolina), and even at theme parks. It can also be easily incorporated into a homeowner’s landscaping whether the property is small or large.

Espalier trees are beautiful and functional. Their patterns can be informal (following their natural shape) or formal, like in a ladder construct, or upward slanting branches evenly spaced apart, or in U-shaped variations.

A benefit of espalier trees on a small property is the leveraging of space. An orchard of fruit trees can grow along a boundary wall or fence without taking up much acreage. The open nature of growth means that almost all fruit on the trees receives plenty of sun.

In Florida, good fruit trees to espalier include citrus, loquat, and Natal plum. (Note, though, that only the loquat will naturally lend itself to a formal growth pattern; the others prefer an informal pattern.)

How to Espalier Trees

A single espaliered tree requires at least 8 linear feet and a location in full sun. Use an existing support (wall or fence) or a free-standing framework. Set posts or stakes 16 inches apart and stretch three or fours rows of parallel wires across them. Plant tree 6-8 inches out from the wires. Bend existing branches in your chosen pattern and secure to wires with plant ties. Prune off unwanted branches. Cut center trunk to just above first wire, leaving buds below cut. As buds develop into branches, train them along your pattern.

Pleaching: Intertwining Branches

French and Italian landscapers in the 17th and 18th centuries established the technique of pleaching. This form of shaping trees typically involves a row of trees with lower branches all pruned off and upper branches intertwined. Intertwined branches eventually grow together and create a solid raised hedge over bare trunks.

Pleaching is also the technique that can create an extended archway of trees, where again, trunks are kept bare up to a certain height, and all branches above are interwoven. In an archway there will be two parallel rows of trees with upper branches interlocking and intertwining to form an arched ceiling.

Lime trees are traditionally used for pleaching, but crab apples and photinia are now quite common as well.

How to Pleach Trees

Begin with trees that have ramrod-straight trunks and are of consistent girth. Plant trees with long, strong stakes at least 8 feet apart. Use bamboo poles or wire cables to create the framework along which branches will be trained. Bend young shoots and tie to the framework. Cut back shoots that don’t bend easily or that are growing the wrong way. As branches grow and mesh, they will need regular pruning. For more info, read John Hoyland’s excellent article on pleaching.

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