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.

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 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.

Espalier apple tree - the before shot
Espalier apple tree before invasive surgery
Espalier Apple Tree - the before shot
Profile shot prior to surgery
Summer pruned espalier
Espalier post Zsa Zsa Gabor Facelift
Espalier tree before pruning
Espalier apple before surgery
Espalier Apple Tree after pruning
Espalier post surgery
Apples ripening
Resultant exposure ripened apples almost immediately
Ripening apples
Lovely ripening apples

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.

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.

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…

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.

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any comments?

Comments: 21

  1. A comment worthy of adding to the post by Jon from Spokane, WA, USA which was sent through by email;

    ‘I read your nice blogpost about your old apple trees requiring pruning to maintain shape.

    Since they are 60yrs old (perhaps before the days of wide availability of dwarfing stocks), and since the fotos show very robust trunks and limbs, I am believing that these espaliers are on standard rootstock, or at least M111 or Bud118 sized stock. Is this true?

    You mention that not enough attention is given in the press about caring for old apple trees. I would like to add that not enough mention is made regarding espaliering vigorous size rootstock apple trees—the assumption is always the use of dwarfing stock, not even semi-dwarf like M7 or G222.

    Furthermore, the assumption is one should use spur varieties. However, this ignores tree bearing habit. There are 3 tree bearing types which get all listed simply as spur. And yet, in my opinion only two of these are good for espalier.

    type I is a true spur. It has central leader dominance and less branching. As espalier it conforms well to strict shapes like horizontals and candelabra form.

    type II is semi-spur. It has less central leader dominance, and has significantly more auxilliary branching. As espalier, it is best for fan or natural 2D shapes. Forcing it into a more structured espalier would require significantly more pruning.

    type III is refered to by USDA as “Standard Delicious”. This type is similar to the semi-spur, however as the tree gains age, the fruiting migrates to the periphery. It therefore would not be the best choice for any espalier even though trees of this type would be generically listed as spur by nurseries.

    type IV is tip-bearer. Not good for espalier whatsoever.

    type V is columnar. Espalier unwarranted as tree is already tidy sized.’

    • In response to Jon’s question – Its difficult to say what kind of rootstocks they used, as they were planted 80+ yrs or so ago. Also, long before our family took on the house. I do think you are probably correct in that they are semi-standard’s, probably MM111’s as they are pretty big!

  2. Hi Petra, nicely pruned espalier apple tree, – if you don’t mind me asking, what kind of pruning tools did you use?

  3. I’m in zone 5 in upstate NY it’s october 21st is it to late to prune? It’s been unseasonably warm and is just starting to get cold thanks

  4. I’m so glad to have found your blog! I am moving into a house with two espalier apple trees in the garden that have not been tended for about three years so I’m going to have to do some renovation, and am very nervous. I know on of them is a George Carpenter but do not know the other variety. It would be good to see how your trees are doing this year and I will then make free with my secateurs. Fran

    • Dear Fran,
      Delighted this post is of some use. Established Espalier Trees are a real treasure. You are lucky in that you can identify one already, most of ours are a mystery. We have some idea, but only guesses. Must get them verified. Good luck on your tree renovation, a tough job but very rewarding!

    • I am really glad I found this page. I have 8 such trees in my garden, in 2 rows of 4, making a beautiful wide avenue effect. However, when I moved in 5 years ago they were extremely overgrown and, not knowing a great deal about them, I just pruned off the width to keep then espalier like. Now, a few years later, I have realised that they need to be thinned out too. I did that to the largest tree and was about to go out today (yes Boxing Day) to start on the others. But reading your blog leaves me with less confidence that this is the correct time of the year to do it.
      As your entry for this is about a year old can you provide an update to say how the tree was the following year i.e. 2012, as I am not sure if pruning now will just make things worse. Mike

  5. 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

  6. 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.)Anna

  7. 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.

  8. Beautiful trees. I wish they were in my garden. How do you keep rust away?best regardsEvaEvigglade.blogspot.com

  9. 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!

  10. 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!

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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!

  14. 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!!!

  15. 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.Dave

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. >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