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Alabama Gardens: Botanical sculpture

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Can something beautiful also be useful? Absolutely, especially in the garden! Take, for example, espaliers.

Espaliering (espalier is a French word derived from the Italian term spalliera, meaning “something to rest the shoulder (spalla) against”) is the technique of growing a woody plant on a flat plane using the plant’s trunk and limbs to form a pattern against walls, fences or other structures or as a freestanding work of botanical art.

The practice of espaliering dates back to ancient times when it was first used to grow fruit-bearing vines and trees in small spaces, such as inside castle courtyards or along crowded medieval streets. By growing these plants against southern or western facing walls and fences and pruning them into an open pattern, early agriculturalists also harnessed more sunshine, which lengthened the plants’ growing seasons and increased fruit yields and quality.

While this cultivation practice is functional, it also affords an opportunity to create something beautiful. An espalier is a great way to enhance the looks of bare outside walls or fences, or you can build a freestanding trellis anywhere in the yard to create an espalier. All it takes is a little bit of forethought, some basic tools and a wee bit of patience.

The first step is to pick a plant to use and the options are numerous. Many fast-growing trees, shrubs and woody vines can be espaliered, including fruit-producing plants such as apple, pear and citrus trees, figs and grape vines as well as ornamental plants such as camellias, gardenias, magnolias, hollies, crape myrtles, roses, jasmine, wisteria and honeysuckle (though choose non-invasive varieties of these last two).

The next step is to pick a pattern for your espalier, and those pattern options are also numerous, ranging from simple T- U- and V-shaped designs to more intricate basket-weave, Belgian fence, step-over, palmate (fan), chevron or candelabra shapes or even less formal patterns such as serpentines or naturalized free-form designs. Once you’ve decided on a pattern, draw it on a piece of paper, then use that drawing to develop a support system that will be used to train the plant’s shape as it grows.

To create a simple support system, all you need are rust-proof eye-hooks or galvanized or masonry nails and thin galvanized steel or copper wire. Using your pattern, mount the hooks or nails to the wall in a grid then use the wire to link the nails or hooks to one another in the desired pattern. Another option is to erect a freestanding trellis or support system made from wood or pipe in front of a wall or fence. This technique can be a bit more time consuming or may require more tools, but because it allows the plant to grow a bit away from the wall, it can provide better air circulation around the plant and easier access for plant maintenance or to pick fruit if you’re planting a fruiting tree or vine.

Once you’ve set up a support system, plant your chosen shrub, tree or vine six to eight inches away from any permanent structure so the plants’ roots have plenty of room to grow. (For more intricate designs you may want to use more than one plant and you can also use a potted plant as long as the pot is big enough to support the plant’s root system for a number of years as it grows.)

Allow the plant (or plants) a couple of weeks to become established in this new location, then remove any branches that do not fit your design needs. Many experts suggest removing all but two shoots on each branch, then attaching the remaining shoots to the wires with twist ties or string.

Snip off unnecessary shoots a couple of times of year and secure new tender shoots that fit your pattern to the guide wires. (Follow pruning recommendations for your specific plant choice.) When the trunk reaches the next wire up, allow two side shoots to develop (remove the rest) and attach them to the wires and keep doing this until your espalier is complete.

This is where patience is a virtue, if not a necessity — it may take two or three years before your espaliered plant reaches its perfect form — but the botanical art you create will be well worth the wait.

 

September Tips
  • Clean dead plants and debris from garden beds and the landscape.
  • Add lawn and garden debris to the compost, along with any organic (non-meat) kitchen waste.
  • Test your soil so you’ll know what amendments to add this fall and winter.
  • Take notes or draw a map of your beds and landscape highlighting what worked and what failed in this year’s garden for use as you plan next year’s garden.
  • Plant fall and winter vegetables and root crops, such as cabbage, collards, celery, garlic and onions.
  • Continue to mow and irrigate lawn as needed.
  • Plant winter grass seeds on bare areas.
  • Plant perennials and biennials and spring-flowering bulbs.
  • Divide perennials and thin or transplant irises and daylilies.
  • Clean bird feeders and birdbaths and keep them filled throughout the fall for resident and migratory birds.

 


JACKSON, KATIE Gardening 2013

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.