How to build a free-standing espalier

The espalier method of growing fruit trees allows you to create living green fences and to grow more fruit in a small space.  We have built a couple of free-standing espaliers at Big Foot as one of our living laboratory experiments with different approaches to growing fruits and nuts.  A free-standing espalier consists of two or more strong, tall, posts in a line, with two or more horizontal wires strung between each set of posts.  The trees’ branches are trained along the horizontal wires over the first few years of the trees’ growth.

Using the method described here it took us about two person days to complete a 36 foot wide and 7 foot high espalier with 4 posts and 4 wires between posts.

This is a general guide for how to build a free-standing espalier.

Materials:

  • Wooden posts – rot-resistant, and strong 4-6″ diameter, 2-3 longer than the desired final height.
  • 3/8″ crushed stone
  • 14 gauge wire
  • Screw eyes
  • Turnbuckles

Tools:

  • Post-hole digger and shovel
  • Level
  • Tamper
  • Drill
  • Pliers

Plan your espalier.  You can be pretty flexible.  Your espalier can be as little as 4 feet high, or as high as your ladder will allow you to prune and harvest (I have seen them as short as a foot high in France!).  Our main espalier is 7 feet at the highest wire.  For the wires, you need to leave enough room between the tiers of wires for summer growth – about 15-18 inches.  For the bottom wire, it needs to be above the ground-cover.

Get good, rot-resistant posts.  We used black-locust wood posts for our espalier.  Black locust is extremely rot-resistant.  We bought some 4×4 inch posts, and some natural branch posts, about 6 inch diameter from a lumber yard out in Western Mass.  Photo shows our rental truck and the woodpiles!  But you can also use cedar, redwood, or oak – just try not to get treated wood, it is full of poisons 😦

Put your posts into the ground.  Your post hole should be a good 2 1/2 feet deep.  We dug our holes by hand with a shovel and a post-hole digger.   We then tossed a good shovel-full of 3/8″ crushed stone into the hole, centered our post in it, and used a level to make sure it was vertical.  We then  filled the hole partially with more of the crushed stone, and, while one person holding the post straight, another tamped the stone down.  Then we added a second layer of stone and so on until the holes were filled.   We preferred this method to using cement because it is more natural, and, if you need to, you can move your posts relatively easily.  The photo shows two of our posts!

String wire horizontally between the posts. img_6657Follow your plan to mark the heights for stringing the wires. We decided to span separate wires between each post and at each wire tier so that we would have the most flexibility to adjust the wire tension. This method does require a screw-eye on each post, and a turn-buckle on one end.  To make sure the wires would be horizontal, we spanned some twine between posts along each tier.  Using a level, we adjusted the twine as needed and then make marks where you will put in the screw-eyes.  We then pre-drilled the holes and turn the screw-eyes into each hole.

Hook a turn-buckle on one of the screw-eyes and secure the wires between the screw-eyes and turn-buckles.   A separate post shows how we secured the wires.

That’s it! now you have your espalier all set for training your vines or fruit trees!

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