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Hedges, Screens, and Fences – Designing Garden Walls With Personality

I’ll never forget the day I visited Mount Vernon. As I strolled through the lush vegetable garden, I was captivated by the low, orderly hedges lining the paths. But upon closer inspection, I discovered they weren’t just any ordinary hedges – they were espaliered pear trees, trained into artistic shapes to serve as living walls.

On the bordering garden walls, more espaliers had been sculpted into stunning fan designs, creating striking focal points. The way these plants had been skillfully pruned and woven into architectural forms made the entire space feel so inviting and beautifully balanced.

After returning home, I dove headfirst into studying the art of espalier. I read every book I could find, spent endless hours in the hot sun with my pruning shears, and eventually even opened a nursery specializing in these ornamental, fruit-bearing wonders. Through all that time and effort, I learned that designing garden walls with personality is about so much more than just plopping down a standard fence or hedge.

The Many Faces of Espalier

There are many different espalier designs, each with its own purpose and aesthetic in the garden. The more elaborate candelabra and fan shapes make for captivating focal points, while the humble cordon and Belgian fence are excellent for screening views.

The cordon, with its simple horizontal tiers, is the most common espalier design because of its versatility. When used as a focal point, cordons typically measure around 6 feet tall by 6 feet wide. But their dimensions can be adjusted to fit any available space. The ones lining the wall in my side garden, for example, are 6 feet wide but only 4 feet tall, serving as a living fence.

The candelabra espalier, on the other hand, is a true showstopper. Its height and dramatic branching pattern command immediate attention. The one adorning the entryway to my house is 80 inches wide and stands 8.5 feet tall, with each branch spaced 16 inches apart. While this spacing may look a bit sparse when the plant is young, it fills in beautifully as the tree matures.

For a see-through screen that blends seamlessly into the landscape, I planted a Belgian fence espalier to divide my driveway from the side garden. Its unique diamond-shaped gaps allow light and air to pass through while creating an eye-catching silhouette, especially in winter when the bare branches are on display.

The Benefits of Masonry Backdrops

Historically, espaliers were trained against brick or stone walls because the masonry helped absorb and radiate the sun’s heat, allowing fruit to ripen more quickly. While espaliers today are cultivated more for their ornamental value, this tradition of using masonry as a backdrop persists for good reason.

Brick and stone require far less maintenance than painted wood surfaces. When I do use a wooden trellis, I make sure to leave 4-6 inches of space between the tree and the structure to allow for easy access and airflow, preventing disease.

As for the plants themselves, I prefer Kieffer pear (Pyrus Kieffer) for its vigorous growth habit, disease resistance, and lack of pollination requirement. It usually bears fruit as early as its second season. Other good pear and apple cultivars for espalier include Magnus, Bartlett, Red Delicious, and Liberty.

But espaliers aren’t limited to just fruit trees. You can also train ornamental plants like magnolias, roses, and hollies into these elegant, architectural forms. Just be sure to choose a spot that receives at least 6-8 hours of direct sun per day, as most espalier plants require ample sunlight to thrive.

Step-by-Step Espalier Training

Once I’ve selected the perfect site and the right plant, I start by using chalk to draw an outline of the espalier design right on the surface where I plan to train the tree. This visual guide helps me precisely position the eyebolts that will support the wires that the plant will grow along.

After drilling the holes and inserting lag shields into the masonry, I screw in the eyebolts, leaving 4-6 inches of space between the wall and the eventual trunk. This gap is crucial for air circulation and disease prevention. Then I thread taut wires through the eyebolts, creating the framework for the espalier.

When it’s time to plant, I position the tree as close to the center vertical wire as possible, securing the trunk to it with nursery tape. In late winter or early spring, I prune the leader back to about 2 inches above where I want the first tier of branches to emerge. This cut stimulates the development of new buds, from which I carefully select and train the main branches.

As the branches grow, I gently bend and tie them to the guide wires, straightening out any wonky growth. It’s important not to bend them too soon, as the wood is still too green and prone to snapping. I keep a close eye on the tree, pruning back any wayward growth to maintain the desired shape.

Patience and Precision

Espalier is truly a test of patience. It can take up to 5 years for a tree to reach its full, intended form. But with each passing season, the design becomes more defined, and the plant fills in beautifully.

During that time, I make sure to water my espaliers regularly, especially in dry spells, and feed them a balanced fertilizer in late winter. I also use a jeweler’s loupe to closely inspect the leaves for any signs of pests or disease, which I address promptly.

Pruning is an ongoing process, as I trim back side shoots and spurs about once a month during the growing season. I always make my cuts just above a downward-facing bud, where new growth will emerge to maintain the desired height and shape.

While perfection is an unattainable goal with these living sculptures, I’ve learned to embrace the natural quirks and unique character that emerge. Even the most stubborn branches can be corrected with some strategic pruning. And with each passing year, my espaliers only grow more stunning, becoming the true focal points and personality-packed walls of my garden oasis.

Today’s Garden is Garden and Landscape Company, provides all you need about Garden and Landscape Design to get better garden decorations.

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