Last Saturday, some members of our garden went to the first outdoor GreenThumb workshop of the year. We went to the “Know Waste Lands” garden in Brooklyn for a lesson in espalier fruit tree pruning. The site of this workshop was interesting: it is garden and a local composting facility that operates through a youth employment program. It also has a number of fruit trees that should grow as espalier trees along the fence. On one side are three plum trees that had not been pruned for a couple of years. One of them was the subject of the workshop.
Espalier trees are trained to grow only in two dimensions, often on a structure, in our case the fence. The technique is ancient and is used since the Middle Ages to grow fruit inside of small courtyards without blocking too much light. This feature makes them attractive for gardeners like us, who have also only limited space.
Well-trained espalier trees can look very pretty. A beautiful example of an espalier plum tree is found on this website from a gardener in England.
The workshop was led by Greenthumb outreach coordinator Eric Thomann. He first showed us which tools to use and how to sharpen them. He also gave good advice for pruning trees: have a partner who can step back and look from a distance and who can curb runaway enthusiasm. Don’t do it at all when you are in a bad mood.
There are several ways to train trees as espalier. The main branches can be arranged horizontally, as a candelabra or fan-shaped, even in circles. Eric showed us several options. We decided to go for the fan-shape with the plum tree at hand.
One pruning rule is to not cut a tree by more than 1/3 total. This will encourage growth and doesn’t stress the tree too much. That rule was impossible to follow with our tree, which was already very tall and needed to be shortened to the height of the fence. There were also several branches that were growing into the fence and towards the garden. Since this tree was going to be two-dimensional, these had to go. Even the branches that we kept had to be shortened, and small side-branches trimmed off. It is unlikely that there will be any plums this year. Training an espalier tree requires patience.
To achieve the fan-shape that we chose for our tree, the branches must be coaxed a bit. This happens by bending them and tying them to bamboo stakes and to the fence.
Eric started with the branches on the lower left of the tree, then moved on to the taller branches, which he cut with a pruning saw. He then trimmed off side-branches with his Felcos.
The official time for the workshop was up before the tree was even halfway pruned. We’ll have to come back to see the final result.
Before we left, GreenThumb raffled off books and tools. We were lucky: LaGuardia Corner Gardens won a pair of nice pruning shears (thanks GreenThumb!). We don’t have an espalier tree, but we can use the new shears to prune roses, too. February is a good month to do this.