As part of the grand backyard landscape plan, we reserved the southwest facing back fence for a line of espaliered apple trees. The idea is to train the trees in a two dimensional plane, parallel to that of the fence, thus taking up little space, enabling considerable fruit production, and hopefully looking great.
I've been an admirer of espalier since I read about it years ago, and have wanted to incorporate the principles into some plants of my own. The espalier propaganda says fruit production is high per square meter of ground space because all parts of the tree and growing fruit are exposed to sun. And disease pressure may be lower because of uniform circulation of fresh air. Most of all, I think espaliered trees are a beautiful and inspiring example of Nature shaped by the hand of Man.
There is not a torrent of detailed information on espalier on the internet. I've read through pretty much everything relevant Google can find. Much of it (in english anyway) is from the UK, where espalier seems much more popular than in America. This is probably the best overall writeup I've found. Another example of a decent one can be found here.
He doesn't have much on espalier, but for the complete lowdown on one approach to growing organic apples in the northeast, the premier authority is Michael Phillips. I've read The Apple Grower, and I own a copy of The Holistic Orchard. Almost no one is able to grow organic apples on a commercial scale in New England, so I tend to take what he has to say seriously. His rigorous schedule of spraying with various organic concoctions seemingly every week or two is rather daunting to contemplate though.
I'm a huge fan of the books of Lee Reich. He gardens in a similar climate to mine, and I like his approach. His books on edible landscaping design have been inspiring and a major guiding influence on this whole yard project. I'm also currently a follower of his no-till approach to growing annuals, presented through his book Weedless Gardening. I also own his Pruning Book, which I hope to be referring to frequently in years to come. It has some small sections on espalier. And I couldn't resist a copy of his newest book Grow Fruit Naturally. Only problem with Lee Reich is that he has great difficulty growing his apples to a reliable and abundant harvest, which makes me concerned about managing my apples in the same way.
The back fence ended up being 2.3 meters tall (7'6"). The design and install of the back fence is the subject for another day, but suffice to say my desire to build a 50 year capable fence led to it being quite expensive and a pain in the neck for me and the landscape crew. But now it is in and hopefully can last a long time without intervention. And if a post needs to be replaced, it is possible to do without terminal disruption of the trellis and trees on the fence.
I made up a computer layout of the orchard in Inkscape and fiddled it endlessly. Based on the proportions of the space, I settled on 7 small trees evenly distributed across the fence. This would allow the middle tree to act as a centerpiece, and give each tree a roughly square area to fill up on the plane of the fence.
I figured a one meter wide bed would be ok for the line of trees. The yard is about 15 meters wide, so I have about 15 square meters to work with, which is incidentally about as much space as is recommended to grow a single semi-dwarf apple tree. Now that it is done, I wish I had made it 1.3 or 1.5 meters wide.
This bed was designed to be bordered by one of the short retaining walls in back. There is not a whole lot of soil in the bed. Here is a shot before it was backfilled, during construction last fall.
Is it enough to support all these trees, plus the understory plants? I don't know. Behind the fence, at a slightly higher soil level, is a chainlink fence and then a parking lot. There is a curb at the edge of the lot, so I am pretty sure the runoff from the asphalt is not going to wash down into my orchard.
Companion Plants for Apples
The devotees of permaculture are very much in favor of having edible or functional understory plants under fruit trees; the synergy of the layers combines to make a happy "food forest". The idea is that understory plants can help to
- repel undesirable insects and animals
- attract beneficial insects and pollinators
- bring up nutrients from the subsoil
- deposit biomass on the surface of the soil
- provide more food or herbs
The traditional view on the subject is that anything else growing under the apple tree is going to be competing for nutrients with the feeder roots of the tree and thus will be doing more harm than good. Feeling constrained for productive space and enamored of the permaculture philosophy, I opted for an understory.
But what to plant? Well, I don't want to disturb the tree roots and soil of the bed once planting is done, so mainly perennials that require minimal digging up. And the plants should either benefit or at least have minimal impact on the apple trees.
Being in the city, we have relatively less pressure from foraging animals (no deer for instance), and probably less weed and insect pressure than in an area with more surrounding biological coverage. The flip side of this benefit is potential scarcity of pollinators, so who knows maybe we'll have to contemplate keeping bees at some point.
Several sources list daffodils as a repellent for bark eating voles and other harmful animals, so I sketched in a ring of these around every tree, intending to keep the immediate trunk area inside the daffodil ring clear of plants with a stone gravel mulch.
Last fall I ordered 10 bulbs of 7 varieties to make a ring around each tree. These sat in the basement all winter, so some of the bulbs were rotted when we pulled them out at tree planting time. And late spring is not a particularly good time to plant early spring bulbs. But Buster and I distributed the sound ones around each tree as we were planting them, hoping for the best.
Lots of them have indeed come up. I was in a rush planting, so I didn't keep track of which variety I put around which tree. If they survive, I'll have to figure that out from looking at my sales receipt when they flower next spring. Now that the bulbs are coming up, I realize I should have made the ring diameter bigger.
After things become more established I'll probably add some crocus and tulips here and there. Bulbs shouldn't compete overly much with the apples, and are easy to put in and maintain.
A commonly listed companion for apples is members of the allium family. These help repel foraging animals and some comments indicate they may help repel borers. The flowers are attractive to pollinators. Plus we love to eat alliums and some types can be easy to keep going as perennials.
The selection is somewhat narrowed by the principle that I don't want to have to dig them up to eat them. So regular annually grown onions and garlic are out for the most part. I went with:
Egyptian Onions (walking onions)
These looked cool and I like the fact that they spread readily, and you can eat the green parts and the topset bulbs. Bulblets should be nice to pickle. I bought a bag of bulblets from Egyptianwalkingonions.com, and we planted them on the same day as the apple trees. They came right up and are doing great.
Welsh Onions (green onions)
Planted two varieties from seed, Evergreen and Guardsman, plus a plant of He Shi Ko. They came up and are currently looking fragile but will hopefully make it.
Perennial Leek (Perlzwieber)
Ordered bulbs from Southern Exposure, but they don't ship until fall. Also excited to try some potato onions from them in the front yard.
Planted from seed, but only one patch came up and is looking tenuous, so I supplemented with a couple nursery plants. May need to divide them after they get going or reseed next year.
Tansy, Rue, Artemesia
Oft cited aromatic permaculture favorites for insect control. Regular Tansy is too tall for this space, so I ordered some Lake Huron Tansy from Oikos, which tops out much lower. They seemed to be DOA, but Oikos sent me replacements. These also died, along with the small leaf tea I bought from them. I'll have to put something else there. The Rue I planted from seed did not come up, so we brought some plants home from the nursery, in the middle of the picture below. Also visible are the garlic chives from the nursery.
For Artemesia, I went with Silver Mound from the local nursery, visible in the picture of the walking onions above.
Should bring up nutrients from subsoil, help with soil building. I planted chicory (Italian Dandelion). Sprouted and seems to be doing well. Edible early in the season and hopefully won't turn into a weed problem.
Leafy Green plants
Ground cover, moisture retention, soil building. I planted 4 types of perennial Arugula (Sylvetta) from seed, and one transplant from Permaculture Nursery. Perpetual Sorrel will be a welcome edible and won't bolt or spread weedy seed. I've never eaten Salad Burnet, but the foliage looks attractive and most sources say it is worth eating.
Generally provide diversity of flower types and dates, to flesh out the system, as well as provide useful herbs. I've planted Sage, Oregano, Chamomile, and Winter Savory. And a variety of Rosemary called Madeline Hill which won't grow too large and is apparently hardy in zone 6.
More biodiversity, attract pollinators. I planted Oriental Poppy, Columbine, Balloon Flower. Maybe I'll add others later. Columbine below in upper left, Salad Burnet in lower right.
A few spots leftover for helpful annual plants. This year I planted Nasturtium in the front center spot, and Mexican Tarragon. I read about an idea for shielding newly planted baby trees from the fiercest summer sun; plant a sunflower due south of the tree. The Hopi Black Dye sunflowers I planted in this fashion came right up. The kids planted some pole beans to grow up the sunflowers.
Whatever is left over I'll try to grow low perennial clover: Palestine Strawberry and Dutch White. Probably also some creeping thyme, though it is pretty aggressive in my front herb box (even beating out mint), so not sure about introducing it in the orchard bed. I'm thinking I'll leave the ground cover until at least next year, to let other plants get more established.
By the time everything is said and done in a few years, I'll have introduced 50+ plant varieties in the 15 m^2 orchard bed (including the apples).
I wanted to keep the espalier design simple (ish), and I like the way a basic horizontal cordon system looks, so that became my default arrangement. I had been working on the bed layout from a plan perspective, but to envision how the espalier would fill out I created some elevations with different variants. Vector file here. I showed this printout to Becky; she said she thinks I need to get a grip.
I decided to put the bottom rung at 90cm off the soil to give room to understory plants I want to grow, while keeping the apple foliage and fruit up off the lower vegetation. In retrospect maybe this was a little high, but it's too early to say.
With the bottom rung at 90cm, and the top one at 220cm (a little lower than the top of the fence), a total of five rungs would give a rung spacing of 32.5cm (12.8").
The computer model was useful to help me develop my vision for what I wanted the design to look like. I experimented with a sixth rung of apples, which would restrict the understory plants to very low growing species. On Becky's suggestion, I looked at making every tree and every other tree with angled rungs, which looked nice.
Last winter I came across the amazing tree training feats of Peter & Becky from Pooktre. I bought their ebook on whimsical tree training and read through it, and had also admired this picture (from Lee Reich's The Pruning Book):
So the current idea is to try to form a heart in the center of the middle tree. I figure I can allow two buds to grow up as leaders at the level of the bottom point in the heart, progressively lashing them to a wire form, then graft them together at the top and have a single leader proceed up to the next rung. I'm not too sure how to get the sharp downward facing feature that the top of a heart should have. Might end up looking more like an inverted pear.
On the plan, I drew the first angled rungs on trees 2/4/6 starting at 30cm. But as usual, reality is turning out different than plans. Most of the trees I ordered were interstems, to try to match the mature size of the tree to the space I have available. This threw a curve for the rung plan though, since the interstem piece came up past 30cm. So I am now aiming for the first angled rungs at about 45cm.
Despite being a highly recommended companion, I ditched the Comfrey in the end, fearing it would grow too tall for the space under the first rung.
I dearly love many heirloom and niche varieties of apple. New England is a great place to be an apple enthusiast, and our family probably uses more apples than average. Last year I estimate we used approximately 300kg of apples:
- 150kg for hard cider
- 50kg for fresh eating (over the whole year)
- 40kg for sweet cider
- 40kg for apple sauce
- 20kg for pie filling
On our usual trip to Red Apple Farm last fall, we picked many Rhode Island Greenings and Yellow Delicious. Often we pick Golden Russet there, but this year it didn't work out so I ended up buying a few bushels from Kimball Fruit Farm. For cidering, Ben often visits Poverty Lane Orchard in NH and picks Wickson, Kingston Black, Ashmead's Kernel, Esopus Spitzenberg, Dabinett, Redfield, Medaille d'Or, Calville Blanc d'Hiver, Yarlington Mill, and others.
Everyone loves Honeycrisp, which the kids specifically requested we grow sometime. A good Cox Orange Pippin is incredible. Suncrisp are good, as are Mutsu and Newtown Pippin.
Mac is decent right off the tree, but quickly develops a sub par texture. I love to use Macs for sauce though, because they have high acidity, sauce easily, and are available in September before the late season apple schedule crunch arrives.
So many apple varieties, but only seven spots! It was difficult to narrow down the choices, and even now I have some misgivings about my decisions. Espalier is not well suited to tip bearing apples, which puts Golden Russet and a few others out. Thinking about pollination casts many excellent varieties in disfavor because they are triploid. I wanted to favor varieties that were not too slow growing or susceptible to disease, and relatively good producers. The amount of fruit I can grow in 15 square meters won't come close to fulfilling all our needs, so I weighted fresh eating quality, excellent flavor, and multi-use more heavily. And finally, I wanted to match the vigor of the tree and rootstock to the space I have available. All of these factors present a much constrained field of choice, especially in finding heirloom varieties on really specific dwarf rootstock.
I used the nifty calculator on the Orange Pippin site to try to estimate the mature height of the trees. For calculator inputs, I used the rootstock and variety I was interested in, along with 'Above Average soil', 'Short growing season', and 1200mm/yr water. Growing them espalier style will surely have a big impact on this number, but I had conflicting advice about whether it would grow taller or less tall than a normally grown tree. I tend to agree with the thought that espalier will work to limit the growth of the tree because you are artificially restricting the total number of leaves it can have. I used the calculator iteratively to plug in various varieties on the rootstocks I could find them on to choose one with a predicted height somewhat higher than my planned top espalier wire. Maybe I'll let you know how things work out in 20 years!
The better approach in retrospect might have been to just graft what I wanted. While I do want to teach myself grafting, I currently have almost no experience with it, and I wanted to get a year head start by purchasing one or two year old grafted trees. And I admit to some attraction to the interstem concept, which seeks to marry the good performance and robust nature of MM.111 or B.118 rootstock with the size limiting effect of a more dwarf rootstock. Trying to jump from no grafting experience to making interstems would likely be challenging. And I've already got plenty of challenges ahead of me with this project.
We planted the trees in mid April
With help from our Japanese intern Masa.
After their initial pruning to prepare them for their roles in the espalier, they looked like pathetic little sticks in the ground.
It took some of them quite a while to wake up and start growing. I grew nervous enough to buy an extra tree, which is currently plunked down between two others. I'll probably give it away to a friend soon though since the main trees are doing ok now.
Here are the trees I ended up buying, all from Cummins in NY state, in order from the east to west:
Roxbury Russet on G.11/MM.111
Semi-tip bearing, and triploid, but sounds more promising for espalier than Golden Russet. An American heirloom, among the first to be developed and propagated in these english colonies, in nearby Roxbury in the 1600s. These apples are not too satisfying to look at, but are great to eat fresh, keep pretty well, and also useful for pie and cider. Like Golden Russet, they have sugar, tannin, and acid in a proportion that reportedly makes a good single variety cider. The russeting is usually not as complete on the skin as some other varieties, and overlays a splotchy green skin. Description at Orange Pippin.
Early bloomer, no useful pollen, estimated mature height 4.1m. This is on the tall side, but I tried to compensate by putting it in the far west corner, which I figured would get the least sun due to the proximity of a large norway maple. Since planting though, it seems that the vigor of plants in this corner exceeds that of plants in the east corner, so probably did the exact wrong thing on that front. Ah well, maybe I'll have to prune it more heavily.
Gold Rush on G.11/MM.111
A modern apple I have not tasted, this one from PRI in 1994. Reported to be grower friendly, disease resistant, and an astounding keeper. Sounds like it will be good to eat fresh, and even useful for hard cider. Predicted height 3.1m.
Sweet 16 on G.30
A relatively modern apple released in the 1970's from U Minn, said to be easy to grow and somewhat disease resistant. Reliable producer, good fresh eating, and a good keeper. I've never actually tasted this apple, but the descriptions are interesting, citing cherry, vanilla, anise, fruit punch, and bourbon as flavors. Fedco's description. Predicted mature height 3.6m.
Wickson on G.11/MM.111
If I had to choose one apple to say is my favorite, it would be Wickson. It is considered a crab apple, and was developed by Albert Etter in northern California. Predicted height 4.1m; again on the tall side, but this is the center tree in my arrangement and I have some special plans for it. Poverty Lane Orchard description here. When I take a bite of this apple, it blows my mind, and I have to keep going back for more. It packs the flavor, acid, and sugar of a great full size apple into a tiny package, with a mysterious spicy element. Great for fresh eating, and adds a powerful punch to fresh or hard cider. Not a reliable cropper and a pain to pick due to its small size, but I don't care. I just have to have it, and it is in the star spot in the orchard.
Unfortunately, it is only growing a branch from one side of what should become the two first rung diagonals. So I may be forced into trying bud grafting sooner than I might otherwise have chosen!
Opalescent on B.9/B.118
I originally had chosen a Bramley's Seedling for this tree. Bramley is an English heirloom loaded with acid, which we are often short of in our cider blend, and it would liven up any apple sauce. Pretty good for fresh eating too. It's claim to fame is that it is an ideal cooking apple, but when I baked it into a tart it turned to mush as completely as any Mac would have done. Later I read that this is a quality the English prize in cooking apples, whereas the ideal French cooking apple (Calville Blanc d'Hiver) is admired for its ability to remain intact through cooking. Also Bramley is triploid and has a reputation of being full of unruly vigor, and a tip bearer. So I changed my mind on Bramley, but after placing the tree order, so had to choose something else from the Cummins stock which fit all the previously described constraints.
I ended up with another American heirloom: Opalescent. Here is Fedco's description, and Adam's Apples tasting notes. It sounds quite exciting and I'm looking forward to tasting it. Estimated mature height 3.1m.
Ashmead's Kernel on G.30
This English heirloom is almost as old as Roxbury Russet, from around 1700. It is commonly listed as in the very top tier of highly flavored apples, and I certainly agree with that. It might be my second favorite apple. It is a russet, which I actually quite enjoy. I like how russetted apple skin kind of sticks to the tongue when you take a bite, and I admire the matte quality of the surface and how it scatters light. Despite being fantastic fresh and a great addition to cider, this apple is not reported to be easy to grow. It is slow to bear and not a reliable cropper. But the flavor compels me to try to include it in the selection. Read the tasting notes at Orange Pippin. Height prediced to be 2.7m.
Tydeman's Late Orange on G.30
Cox Orange Pippin is a very popular variety in the UK, and is among probably my top 5 apples. I would love to have some in the orchard. But it is described as extremely slow growing and rather disease prone. Already having two more difficult selections in the mix with Wickson and Ashmead, I decided to try Tydeman's Late Orange instead, which Orange Pippin promotes as having close to Cox flavor while being a lot easier to grow. Another one I have not tasted though! Mature height predicted to be 3.6m.
Madeline Hill rosemary and the baby sunflowers visible in bottom right.
So three American heirlooms, two English heirlooms, two moderns. Two russets, one crab.
I am a little nervous about having planted four out of seven trees with apples I have never tasted though. What was I thinking??!!
There are so many other varieties I'd like to grow. Actually my espalier plan will accommodate 70 separate ~1.2m long apple branches (7 trees, 5 rungs on two sides, about 1.2m long each). So if I could master top grafting, I could trade off between variety and yield per type. This thought, whether or not it is ever acted upon, has made me feel more relaxed about my variety choices for the initial trees. These are some of the other varieties I'd like to think about grafting on future espalier rungs.
- Golden Russet
- Calville Blanc d'Hiver
- Chestnut crab
- Kingston Black
- Pitmason Pineapple
- Canadian Strawberry
- Reinne de reinettes
The main thing lacking right now is a trellis. I have planned out a system for it, but it requires 32 shaped supports and a little metalwork. Here is a side view of the supports; there would be five trellis wires running normal to the plane of this drawing.
The trellis wires will be 3mm 316 stainless cable, supported by a cedar vertical member on brackets (as shown above) between each tree and at the ends. Still working out how to best deal with the ends of the wires and how to tension them. I'll probably wait until we have our CNC woodcutter built before undertaking the support brackets for the verticals, since that will make it much easier to produce them and is a good project to make use of the machine.
Already the trees are not putting out growth where I want them to and in the direction I want them to. Of course this is part of the challenge, but it is making me feel anxious to get the trellis in place so I can direct the growth while it is still soft.
I can see that many of the perennials I planned for the understory will need to be propagated and spread out over a few years to fill the space I allocated for them. And some substitutions will be necessary for plants that don't make it. I may try to scootch some of the daffodil rings bigger in diameter by pulling up the ones that are closest to the trees.
And I need to teach myself grafting so that in a few years I'll be ready to start glomming on scionwood of all sorts of strange varieties. If the vision comes to fruition (ha ha), these will be some pretty wild frankentrees. Could easily end in disaster or take some replanting and scaling back of ambitions, but I am excited to finally be putting this in action.
No time like the present, right? I ordered a couple single bevel woodworking knives from Japan Woodworker that I liked the look of as grafting knives.
There are plenty of youtube videos of people doing grafting with boxcutters and pocket knives, but I do have a weakness for a fine tool fit for a particular job. After sharpening the new knives on my waterstones, I practiced whittling on some scions I cut from neighborhood ornamental Malus trees.
I ordered some 50um grafting tape from A.M. Leonard on Ben Polito's recommendation, and a few pieces of scion wood of varieties I was interested in grafting later from Fedco.
Violet and Millie both expressed interest in learning how to graft, so after trying out the process myself I gave Violet a lesson. I don't know what I'm doing myself, but should that stop me from teaching someone else? Certainly not!
Violet demonstrates the process here, with my woodworking marking knife.
Trim with pruners.
Bevel with a sharp knife. The last slice should take one continuous layer off the wood, so that the surface is as flat as possible.
Add a cut in the opposite direction with the knife, to help the graft stay together while taping and to provide some extra mechanical stability while the graft heals. This picture looks scary, but its just the angle. Her wrist was way above the plane of the knife when she was doing this.
Stick together, then tape it up, using the stretch of the tape to help clamp the two pieces together.
Here are a few pics of my practice grafts at the kitchen counter.
Most of the time, I commute by bike from Somerville to Bedford, through Cambridge, Arlington, and Lexington, mainly on the Minuteman Bikeway. This is an old railroad track converted to a foot and bike trail, and it is lined with many scraggly apple trees. Some of these were probably intentionally planted at some point, some may have grown from seed from apple cores thrown out the windows of steam trains, and some may even be native crab apples. In any case, developing my grafting skills by working on these trees seemed appealing. No one takes any care of them, so my grafts are not going to be pruned off by a landscaping service or the city maintenance crew. And if by chance my grafts take and even bear fruit? I can enjoy it on my ride.
So on a few days in mid spring, I put my Bahco bypass pruners, grafting knife, poly tape, and a couple scions in my bike bag. I focused on two easy to access and robust looking trees with reasonable sunlight.
In retrospect, these trees were already mature and I put the grafts on fairly low in the tree, without pruning much off. So there is not much vigor coming up the tree to make the grafted piece go.
Maybe next year I'll try working a bit higher up, and do some pruning first. This will help the tree put energy into the graft area to make it grow. I feel the basic process is not too hard, but will certainly benefit from practice. Some of the grafts are showing signs of life, others not so much. Here is one that looks like it is going to go, based on the leaves popping out the end. Cool!
Ok, I'll post an update maybe next winter with how the rest of the season went.