The Kindest Cuts

I have great admiration for trees. They are my favorite plants to use in landscape designs, and I love to plant them, look at them, hear and see them swaying in the wind. I grew up climbing trees for entertainment and I love sitting under them now. My husband often said emphatically that they are the “hair of the earth.” I believe he was right, as trees do the best they can to keep good old Earth covered in many ways. Yet trees are versatile and unique in their capabilities, and I understand that not all trees are at their best when left on their own. Sometimes, they need the knife.

There seems to be some kind of magnetic relationship between trees and knives, trees and saws. Sometimes I could cry over the damage done with these tools to my favorite plants. Yet, to examine the value of trees from another perspective, look at the huge number of tree species and the uses we have for them, which cover the gamut from fruit, nut and exotic lumber production to their harvest for pulpwood. Most intriguing to me among these uses are the fortunate trees that are managed for a rare combination of ornamental and food-producing benefits.

Espalier (pronounced es-PAL-yer) is a technique of training by tying and pruning a tree, often a stone fruit-bearing species, to a permanent wall, for the purpose of growing that tree in a single plane as if it were flat. Many of us have seen or worked with an espalier, but the technique has become unfamiliar in general landscape use since the rise of the “natural” landscape trend and the move away from formal and high-maintenance landscapes.

A painting of a fig tree in an Egyptian tomb seems to be the earliest record of this ingenious fruit-growing method. In 16th Century France, fruit trees were trained against walls to take advantage of the walls’ heat gain to protect the flower and setting fruit. Espalier’s popularity was more recently shown in 18th century gardens such as the Palace of Versailles and Fontainebleau, and the gardens of George Washington at Mount Vernon.

The very idea that one can beautifully grow a crop in a space of a very few square feet intrigues me. Like the culture of bonsai, the art and fun of nipping and tucking to exert extreme control seems like the perfect counterpoint to the large majority of my own landscape, which follows the natural natives theme. I like the irony of severe geometry achieved with the organic and dynamic plant material; the twigs are trying to go native, but we tie them into form, or else, off with them!

An espalier, especially if it is grown on a south-facing wall, casts no shadow over the rest of the landscape, leaving plenty of sunny areas for other plants, be they vegetables or ornamentals. Dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees are obvious choices for shaping this way, though I have also seen evergreen Magnolias and Pyracantha trained similarly.

Four-season interest is well observed in an espalier because we can get so up close and personal with it. Get near to the tree to work on it or admire it, actually get face to tree, and you can witness the textures of bark and leaves in a way you reserve for your favorite things in life. Lenticels and stomata never seemed so clear. Stamens and pistils assume new importance, and the leave-less landscape of winter shows off a good espalier especially well as an art form. For this reason, and because of the slight requirement for horizontal space, small urban gardens or courtyards are a great place to cultivate this style.

There are at least half dozen basic categories of shape for espalier, with numerous subsets within those. The horizontal “T” and candelabra style are the type I most often see, although serpentine designs might be a lot of fun for the artist who creates them. The serpentine style includes imaginative non-geometric and whimsical braiding and trainings created for the sheer thrill of control and exploration. Cordons, fences and fans are other geometric styles that you will see or could create. Of course, each tree has its own genetically programmed desire lines for growth, and degrees of flexibility, and to be successful you need to understand the limitations and the potentials of your plant.

So much in our work and our lives is beyond our control. If maintenance of a design falls short and the form disappears, if a beautiful mature tree is ruined forever, I mourn the loss and waste, and you probably do as well. I think that is one reason that I garden — as a means to set things right. I think I would like to train an espalier, to take a knife to a tree. You know, in one of those positive ways. Maybe I could create my own view, my own focal point, control my own space, by giving a small tree some very kind cuts.

Elinor Bennett Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at

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