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5050 SE Stark • 503-231-5050

9000 SE Division • 503-788-9000

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Portland Nursery

Espalier Fruit Trees

Espalier fruit trees are a great way to save space and have
fresh home-grown fruit too!


Photo by Evelyn Simak [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

First a few things you should know

  • All espalier forms need a strong structure for support and training while they are young. Once the branches are thicker the structure can sometimes be removed.
  • Branches that grow horizontally produce more fruit. An espalier tree may not produce as much fruit as a 3-D tree, but it still produces a lot.
  • Pruning, at least twice a year is part of the deal. It may sound daunting, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be fine.
  • Most fruit trees require a lot of care. Be prepared to apply dormant spray once or twice during winter as a preventative measure, to keep an eye out for pest and disease issues, and to treat them. Many organic solutions for treatment are available.

Espaliers at Portland Nursery

At Portland Nursery we offer apples, Asian pears, European pears and cherries in a fence shape. Each tree has 2-3 tiers, with 2-6 different varieties grafted to a central stem. Because apples, pears and cherries mostly require the presence of at least 2 different varieties for pollination and fruiting, combinations of compatible varieties are used. Our growers choose the combinations so we usually don’t know what varieties are available until trees arrive on site.


This is an example of a dormant 3-tier, 3 variety Asian pear.
Each tier is one variety.

Espalier Forms

Fruit trees can be trained into many different designs.

  • A. Fence
  • B. Candelabra
  • C. Cordon
  • D. Fan

To train fruit trees into these forms you’ll need to start with very young trees called whips. Portland Nursery stocks small fig trees, but not additional small fruit trees. The Home Orchard Society is a good resource for finding starts or to learn to graft your own.

In addition, you can refer to our handout on Espalier Trees.


Site – Fruit trees need full sun, at least 6 hours a day. Espaliers can fit in narrow spaces, but need plenty of light.

Soil – Well-drained moist soil is best for most fruit trees. Soil pH needs vary by tree type, but adding lime to increase pH is generally a good idea in Portland. Adding compost, 1 part compost to 3 parts soil will increase drainage.

Space – Plants should be placed 6-12” from the wall or support structure to allow for air circulation & easy access. Branches on espalier trees can be kept shorter to fit into small spaces or can be allowed to grow to their full width (4-10’ in both directions, depending on root stock). Spacing depends on how wide you plan to allow branches to extend, and what kind of espalier design you choose.

Support – A support structure is important, especially during the early training period. Set it up before planting. Structures can be built with many different materials - wood posts connected with wire are commonly used. Existing fences, trellis and buildings are good to start, but may need adjustments - a scaffold created with eye hooks & wire can create a strong support structure.

Training an Espalier on a Fence


Dig a hole as deep as the tree’s pot, and twice as wide. To the removed soil add:

Compost, 1 part compost to 3 parts soil, Lime if the pH needs to be higher, Fertilizer following the directions on whatever type you choose (we like E.B. Stone’s Sure Start). Mix well.

For bare root trees, make a cone shape mound with soil & compost blend in the bottom of the hole and fan the roots over the top. Make sure the graft is 2” above the soil line.

For well-rooted trees, untangle roots (cut in extreme situations) to make sure they are growing out, away from the trunk and not circling inside the root ball. Place in the hole, making sure the graft is 2” above the soil line.

Next - Fill in the hole with soil blend. Create a soil dam around the edge of the hole to keep water from running out of the area and water well, even if it’s raining.


Graft — spot at the base of the trunk where it joins with roots. Almost all fruit trees are grafted as it is the only way to ensure that varieties are uniform — that your Honeycrisp apple is indeed Honeycrisp.

Root-stock — the rooting portion of the fruit tree. Root-stocks decide how quickly and well a tree will set root and the growth-rate and ultimate size of the tree.

Scion — the upper, fruit-producing portion of the tree.

Fruiting Spurs — branches that are shorter & fatter than others, which produce fruit.

Growth Spurs — branches that are long and & slender which produce leaves.


Water — Fruit trees need regular water while rooting and becoming established. Use a soaker hose or sprinkler set at a trickle. Leave water on for 45-60 minutes once a week during the first year. Increase frequency when weather is over 85f.

Cut watering in half during the second summer. Once established give trees a deep soaking before heat waves, especially if the tree is fruiting, but regular water is no longer needed.


Pruning varies by variety of tree. Some general tips:

  • Winter pruning enhances stem and leaf growth.
  • Summer pruning enhances fruiting.
  • Cut back growing tips, not fruiting spurs. Fruiting spurs are short swollen branches & are easily spotted in winter when the tree is dormant.

The American Horticultural Society’s book Pruning & Training is an excellent resource and we highly recommend the investment.

Pruning Espalier Apples


Choose a fertilizer that is for fruit and flowers and follow the package directions exactly. We like E.B. Stone’s Fruit Berry and Vine Food.

Apply lime twice a year to keep pH levels slightly higher than our typical acidic soils.

Pest & Disease Management

This is a large subject. Portland is subject to a plethora of fungal problems due to rain, and pests are likely to be an issue at some point as well.

At the very least:

  • Rake up fallen leaves in autumn
  • Mulch the ground beneath fruit trees to cover fungal spores
  • Apply dormant spray during winter
  • Keep an eye out for unhealthy leaves or fruit

Come in and see us if you have any questions!