Monday, 22 August 2011

Facelifted espalier apple trees

For some years, our inherited (60+ year old) espalier apple trees, have been somewhat neglected. Being such a special part of the garden, this may sound surprising, but as trees, they are often forgotten. Trees provide the structure, around which gardening activities take place. Terrible, but often true.

Espalier Apple Tree - the before shot

The walled garden has 14 espalier apple trees, which for many years have been pruned in winter, along with the (half) standard apple trees in the main orchard. Undoubtedly, this will make the discerning fruit growers amongst you, frown intently.

Espalier Apple Tree - the before profile shot

Espalier pruning is best undertaken after the tree has flowered and set fruit, that is August-September time.  Despite best efforts, time was never on our side, until this year. We decided that the trees could not be ignored any longer, and work to rejuvenate, the always so generous producers of lovely apples, started in earnest. One, blog post-less week later, the result is staggering.

Post facelift

Despite being covered in lichen, scab, and the odd bit of rust, the trees are generally healthy. The lack of summer pruning has led to the development of huge top growth, resulting in espalier trees that have far outgrown their original structure. Trained forms such as espalier apple trees require summer pruning to maintain their shape by restricting new growth. Excessive growth in our trees has consequently led to fruiting taking place high up in the trees, which for espalier trained apple trees is just wrong, not to mention tricky picking wise.

Post facelift

Interestingly, the years of mistimed pruning does not seem to have impacted the yield. Every year, we are surprised by the trees' generosity. Though, after this recent intensive spa treatment, it remains to be seen how much they will produce next year. Summer pruned side shoots should form fruiting spurs, so the prospects should be good.

Post Facelift

Despite watching hours of gardening telly and reading stacks of books on the subject of pruning apple trees, it is always somewhat frustrating that the examples shown are usually young(ish) trees, not oldies like ours. I realise 60+ year old apple trees are rare, though I have been to many a garden, where examples such as these exist. Herein lies a small plea for more coverage on renovating old fruit trees, as they are special and require care. Monty, I hope you are reading this...

Sunlight coming through

Being the age that they are, there are limits as to the degree of pruning one can do. At this age, it is dangerous to assume that shoots will regrow where pruned, so we tread carefully. However, the start is as is always prescribed, with the four D’s; remove Dead, Diseased, Dying and Damaged wood. Consequently we pruned the trees to; (1) maintain the espalier shape; (2) open up the shape to let in light and air, (3) removal of any crossing or rubbing branches, and (4) thinning overcrowded or old fruiting spurs. We probably need to do some additional (light) winter pruning to sort out additional over-crowding. Though, this just the first step to bringing the apple trees back to their espalier shapes. Many years of work lie ahead.

The work involved is quite something, especially as we have so many trees, and all really needed their cosmetic surgery. It is though, such a gratifyingly enjoyable affair. The trees look so much the better for it, light and air is coming through the trees, the apples are exposed to the sunlight for better ripening, and all 'sap drawing' shoots have been banished from the trees. Being the size and height they are, access was pretty limited and required some acrobatic stunting to reach those last wretched shoots. Not easy, as I really do hate ladders, especially our rickety wooden number. I have written to Santa for a fancy, stable, tripod ladder.

Apples exposed to sunlight


  1. Beautiful trees and an interesting post. We have never done any summer pruning of our trees. I would support your plea for advice for older trees, I know some of ours are older than me ;) We have no espaliers and I have never seen lovely, well established ones like yours. Lucky you, even if you do have to engage in acrobatics : Mo

  2. There's something very satisfying about espalier trees, especially the older gnarly ones like your own. They have a gentle and wise presence which I admire.
    We have some espalier apples which must be 20 or so years old. They never provide very satisfactory fruit, most of it ending up in pickles and convserves of various sorts which is no bad thing.
    I hope your trees continue for many long years to come and are alwayas cared for so attentively.

  3. Good for you for taking the deep breath and making the plunge. Your trees look so much better for it! They are beautiful in age and shape.

  4. Wow, Petra, I'm so jealous. What beautiful old trees - if a lot of work. No wonder you haven't got round to summer pruning them before now. I've only ever trained young espaliers (from whips) and can see that huge old ones like yours are a different proposition altogether. A job well done.


  5. Thank you all for the kind comments. Much appreciated!

    Mo and Steve. Summer pruning only for trained apple trees, so don't worry about your apple standards until winter! And yes, am now a certified acrobat... be it a rather weedy one!

    Jason, you are so right. The trees look, (sounds silly I know) terribly wise and just demand respect. In terms of yield of our oldies, the best are the cookers. Sadly, we don't know the varieties as many did not have labels, but you can't miss the cookers. They are the best looking of the trees, and provide most fruit. The coxes and Beauty of Bath, produce not so great apples, but we are still delighted to have them. Their ornamental value to the garden is priceless.

    Julie, agreed. I think the trees look so much better. Seeing them back in (some) shape, and showing off their apples is just lovely. Even we were surprised how good they looked after their crew cut, and have therefore vowed to always do the summer prune from now on!

    David, indeed. Pruning the first trees was terribly exciting, but that does wear off. Having so much growth meant that getting to the shoots was near impossible, but we thankfully managed with many scratches and scrapes to ourselves. Telescopic loppers are a godsend, though really heavy on the arms!!!

  6. Championship pruning.
    The tripod ladder is an essential for anybody who ever has to prune a fruit tree. An object of great elegance is necessary when you are leaning over, sweating, with tired arms, a hundred scratches and your bum in the air!

  7. Nice job, and beautiful looking trees. If the yield isn't so good next year I'm sure you'll benefit from it in subsequent years.

  8. Hello James! Crickey, never realised I was putting on such a delightful spectacle whilst pruning! Aghh! Santa had better read that letter...

    Thank you RobD. Delighted that there is hope for a plan B!

  9. I've been watching the Victorian Garden series on DVD and it's a delight to see how the old boys used to espalier their trees. Glad to see that you had are taking care of such old and special trees. I'm with you on the ladders especially!

  10. Your trees are rather beautiful, incorrectly pruned or not. I have three ancient trees, still amazingly productive, and we are gradually getting there - but it's not straightforward...

    May you continue to have great crops!

  11. Beautiful trees. I wish they were in my garden.
    How do you keep rust away?

    best regards

  12. Domestic Executive - Good thought as to the Victorian Garden series. I have watched some of those and they may have some good ideas as to the maintenance of older espalier trees.

    Kate - thank you. They are lovely, but as you say not very productive. Apart from the cookers. They are fantastic in terms of yield, and are by far the best looking apple trees.

    Eva - We don't do anything really to keep rust off, or any other potential diseases. They are not sprayed at all. At this age, we just look out for fungus and rot, but that is pretty much all.

  13. Those trees are magnificent. I've never seen one in person, but I've always been intrigued by them in garden books. (I'm in Texas.)

  14. Your trees are beautiful, even before they looked lovely but you've certainly improved them more. I'm just about to plant some fruit trees (sadly the winters aren't reliably cold enough for apples so you have definately given me some food for thought. Christina


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