Espalier apple tree

Espalier apple tree

Of the fruit trees grown in the valley, apples and pears adapt best to the climate of Southern Oregon.

Each can tolerate wet soils in winter and spring, and each tends to bloom later than most other fruit and, in many years, send out their blooms once danger of hard frosts are over. While pears made the Rogue Valley famous, apples have played a vital role, as well.

Apples were a mainstay crop of the early pioneers in our area. The first commercial apple orchard was planted in the late 1870s by Tobias Miller on Sardine Creek near Gold Hill. More than 140 years later, apples are the most popular fruit for a home orchard.

The espalier apple orchard takes apple growing to a new level. All maintenance is performed with both feet on the ground, which takes some of the work out of tree care and virtually eliminates the orchard ladder.

Webster's Dictionary defines "espalier" as a plant trained to grow on a railing or trellis, and apples adapt exceptionally well to such training. The first step is constructing a trellis on which the branches will be trained to grow. The trellis structure includes wooden posts as a main framework, along with two tiers of fencing wire placed 30 inches and 60 inches above the ground. T posts and wooden posts are placed at 10-foot intervals to support the wire structure. The end of each trellis is supported by two wooden posts, 4 feet apart, fashioned into an "H" structure (middle post) and firmly secured by two crosswires each angled at 45 degrees. The wire tiers are tightened on one end using a ratchet fencing tightener, which remains in place in order to retighten wire over time when needed.

Semidwarf rootstock is chosen. Choosing trees that have two or three upright growing branches are the easiest to train onto an arbor. Tip pruning encourages branching, and one branch is allowed to grow in each direction on both tiers (ideally four branches to start with). Use poly plant tape to gently tie branches to the wire. Trees can be planted closer than traditional orchard spacing, 8 to 10 feet apart.

Within a couple of growing seasons, branches trained on the wires will start growing together. Carefully weave them together on the wire. Where the branches touch, they eventually will grow physically together, a process called "pleaning," in which branches become one interconnected plant, all theoretically sharing the same root systems. Pleaning is a phenomenon shared only by a few plants, and apples and pears are included in this group.

Pick off any fruit that develops for the first three years to encourage the trees' energy to be diverted into plant growth rather than fruit (seed) production. Another highlight of the espalier system is more fruit productivity, as research has shown that horizontal branches produce more and earlier fruit than vertical branches.

Choose varieties compatible for pollination and apples that you actually will use. Jackson County Master Gardener Association can offer advice on which apples to plant for cross-pollination. Not only must the pollen be compatible, but the time of bloom must be the same for both varieties.

Different harvest seasons are available from early summer through late fall. The best cider apples and juice apples are those harvested in fall. Seasonal varieties include:

Early season: Lodi, July Red, Liberty

Midseason: Jonagold, Melrose, Gravenstein, Jonared, Mutsu, Jonathan, McIntosh, Cortland, Empire

Late season: Red and Gold Delicious, Braeburn, Enterprise, Granny Smith, Tydeman's Red, Red Fuji, Winesap and Arkansas Black (Winesap and Arkansas Black are great cider apples!)

Probably the most disease-resistant apples available are Liberty, Priscilla, Gold Rush and Enterprise. These varieties are recommended especially for those who want to grow organically and must resist the use of fungicide sprays in spring.

The espalier method makes orchard maintenance quick and easy compared with traditional care using ladders. Dormant sprays, along with controls for diseases and codling moth, all are performed with a backpack or hand-held sprayer.

Even monitoring adult codling moth activity, which helps to time sprays, is eased by the espalier model. Other major orchard tasks, such as pruning, hand thinning and harvesting are performed with no ladder in sight.

While an espalier apple orchard requires more initial setup time and training of the trees, the ease of production from an established orchard is well worth the added effort. Throw in a drip system for watering, and the orchard is complete.

David James has been writing gardening stories in Southern Oregon for 35 years. Contact him at djames@oigp.net.

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