Establish an Espalier

One of my main tasks over winter has been to set up this trellis to train my dwarf apples up:


Apples trained to form oblique cordons.

Soil Preparation

I’m setting up this espalier in an area that already had a garden bed with pretty good soil in it. However, I added loads of compost and cow poo to it in autumn, well before planting the trees in August. I made sure I mounded the soil up a bit as our soil is clay – although not as much as in other parts of the garden which have no pre-existing garden beds in them.

Espalier Design

Initially I planned something slightly different for this space – six apples on m26 rootstock, trained in one of three shapes (a fan, an espalier/horizontal T, or the KNNN method encouraged by Woodbridge Fruit Trees, from where I bought all of these apples). And I was going to plant another four apples on m26 rootstock on the opposite side of the garden at the top of a tall retaining wall. However, in the end I was too nervous about roots potentially damaging the wall, which left me with four extra apples to squeeze into the space where I had only planned six apples. So after reading up a bit, and being inspired by the cordons by Bek of Beks Backyard, I cut my losses, and decided to train the apples as oblique cordons instead (with the exception of three – two of which are partial tip-bearers and require a different form of espalier for maximum fruit production, and a third which has to fit around our washing line fixture). Cordons are more closely spaced than other espalier forms, so you can fit more apple varieties into a smaller space, and stretch out your harvest by including early, mid and late season apples.

Above the retaining wall I’ll instead plant seven super dwarfing apples on m27 rootstock (called stepover apples, which only reach a max height of 1-1.5metres):


But back to my cordons. The wall I’m planting them along wall runs almost exactly north-south, and is over two metres high, so gets shade from midday in winter, and from mid-late afternoon in summer. This is at the north end of our garden, adjacent to where I have chosen to locate my vegies, so I didn’t want anything too wide or too tall growing here that might compete for space, soil, water or sun with the vegies. And I wanted something that would tolerate a bit of shade from the hot afternoon summer sun provided by the fence. I also wanted to fit in apples or pears somewhere in the garden, and it was suggested to me that apples might actually prefer a bit of protection from the afternoon sun, and that espaliers can do just fine running north-south. Finally, I wanted to provide my vegie garden area with a sense of enclosure, at least during summer, without going higher than the existing wall and apples seem like such a happy partner for the vegie garden, although there are plenty of fruit trees amenable to espalier techniques. I saw a beautiful potager surrounded by espaliered apples in a nearby garden – if only I had been allowed to take a photo.


I relied on a few resources to design and set this up. On apples and espalier and pruning techniques, I relied on these three books:


Espalier by Allen Gilbert; Grow Fruit by Alan Buckinham and Jennifer Wilkinson; The Complete Book of Fruit Growing in Australia by Louis Glowinsky.

And for the trellis I followed almost exactly Deep Green Permaculture’s method, with the exception that I anchored my pickets differently (more below) and not necessarily in a better way. Remains to be seen…

I ordered my dwarf apple trees largely from Woodbridge Fruit Trees in Tasmania, but also a few from Heritage Fruit Trees in Victoria. Yalca Fruit Trees in Victoria is another great site to get a good variety of fruit trees from. I ordered a variety of early, mid and late seasons ripening apples, and eating. cooking and all rounder apples:

  • Early: Beauty of Bath, Vista Bella, Tydeman’s Early Worcester.
  • Mid: Bramley’s Seedling, Huonville Crab, Freyberg, Geeveston Fanny.
  • Late: Sturmer, Mutsu, Duke of Clarence.

Setting up the Trellis

If you’ve never done this before, don’t be intimidated. It was not hard. Although I have a few tips for things to look out for, as my effort was not perfect: 1) Make sure your posts are as straight/upright as possible as you driving them in; and 2) Make sure your end posts are very well anchored (see below step 3) as these posts will take the weight and tension of the apples and wires.

For this job I used the following:

  1. 5 x 2.4m star pickets
  2. 2 x 90cm star pickets
  3. 7 x turnbuckles
  4. About 50 metres of 1.6mm tie wire
  5. 7 x1 .8m bamboo canes
  6. Horticultural tie
  7. Tools: a post driver hired from hardware store for $3 a day, a mallet, pliers, scissors.

The steps I took were:

1. Mark out spots for star pickets. I chose to space my pickets every two metres. Make sure the area you are driving your pickets into is not above any utilities like electricity, gas or water pipes. In Australia go to Dial Before You Dig for advice on where these are located on your property.

2. Drive the star pickets 60cm into ground using the post driver from hardware store. This makes light, satisfying work, even in hard clay and is my new favourite tool after a mattock and a mallet. Note, I was not entirely successful making my pickets upright/straight. I’d pay closer attention to this next time.

HDX Fence Post Driver

Post driver which slides down over the top of the star picket to thump it in .


3.  Anchor strainer/end posts to the smaller pickets using tie wire and turnbuckles (note – do this as step no 3, not 4!). You can instead use an angled strut, or a brace to attach the picket to your wall, as in Deep Green Permaculture method.


Not very straight! May re-do this one….


Less not straight…

4. Attach tie wire directly through every hole (holes in star pickets are spaced 30cm apart) in each star picket at one end, and attach at the other end through a turnbuckle – the type with a hook (make sure this hook fits through the hole in the picket.

IMG_8007 IMG_8006 IMG_7986










5. Mark out spacing for apples. The general advice for oblique cordons seems to be plant them about 70cm apart, although other advice says you can do them at half this spacing. I chose 70cm. For my seven apple cordons, I tied a bamboo cane to three of the wires on a 45 degree angle, then planted the apple also on a 45 degree angle, and tied it to the cane, in that order, so I could get the apple planted at the right angle and in the right spot. Repeated for each apple.


6. Pruning. For my cordons there was no need for pruning as my apples are maiden whips – and my trusty Grow Fruit book told me that the only pruning required when planting apples for cordons, is any laterals longer than 10 or 15cm. I did, however, try this other technique someone suggested to me called notching.  I want to do twin or double cordons, in a u shape, as in the bottom right hand picture:

Alarmingly, the the text that accompanies that pic says that maiden whips often fail as cordons. Argh! My apples are maiden whips, meaning one central leader branch, with no lateral branches. To form the U shape, I want to encourage one of the bottom buds to shoot. As main shoots inhibit the growth of lateral buds (apical dominance, here is a Wikipedia article on it), I needed to interrupt that process by making a notch just above a suitable bud (the right distance from the bottom wire and pointing in the right direction).  I am quite nervous about this experiment. I am very unsure about whether I cut deeply enough or too deeply.  But if these lower buds fail to shoot, I will prune to encourage laterals to grow out in the space between the angled main leaders.

So now I sit back and wait my summer growth to see what pruning is required.



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