The clean lines of a beautifully espaliered fruit tree is a thing of beauty in winter. Chris and Sarah Pike of Branch Nurseries are the masters of this art. Words Lia leedertz, photographs Andrew Montgomery
In a field in Nottinghamshire, Chris and Sarah Pike have done something surprisingly rare: turned old, local, British cultivars of apples and pears into espalier, U-cordons, palmette verriers and croisillons. “There isn’t a great tradition of fruit training for fancy forms in Britain,” says Chris. “People have always grown step-overs, fans and espaliers, but that is about the limit. This tradition comes from eastern France and Belgium and trained fruit is still most popular there.”
It was in France that he bought an old French book on the subject, Encyclopédie Des Formes Fruitières by Jacques Beccaletto. “The Versailles gardeners had made every shape imaginable; they were writing ‘Napoleon’ in pear trees.” But while spectacular, it was not as useful to Chris as another old book: The Lorette System of Pruning. “We train using his system, which means always pruning in the second week of August.” At this time, shortening days send a signal to the plant not to put on further growth, and all energy goes into making fruit buds instead. Cut earlier than this and you risk encouraging new shoots in places you don’t want them; later and the buds have less time to swell. “We also cut back new shoots twice, as Lorette advocates, which adds another year on to the process but helps create a cluster of shoots in one small area. This allows you to select two shoots to train from almost exactly the same point of the stem.” There is a reason only apple and pear trees are trained in these extravagant ways. “They fruit on old wood,” says Chris, “producing clusters of spurs that are a little like coral: they just build up over the years.”
On elaborately trained espalier fruit the angles need to be sharp and the attention to detail precise, and not just for aesthetic reasons. “You lower the limbs to the horizontal to slow the sap and the plant’s growth. If one limb is slightly more angled towards the vertical than its opposite, or a curve is different, one side can grow more strongly and the plant will become lopsided over time.” For this reason it’s Sarah – a trained florist – who takes care of the actual training. “She’s just better at it,” says Chris.
2. In August it is cut back to the required height: 35cm from the ground for a step-over, 50cm for most other shapes. After 15cm of re-growth, Chris cuts the tree back to the exact same point again. This creates a cluster of buds on one point of the stem which will then all grow at the same level, and makes it easy to select two branches to train horizontally, or at 45 degrees for a Belgian fence. Once these buds turn into shoots, Chris or Sarah selects the best-placed ones and starts tying down. A central stem can be selected from the cluster to carry the shape on upwards. The double cutting back helps to keep this central point in balance with the rest of the limbs, and prevent it from drawing too much energy.
This shape takes a minimum of three years to form. “This is a good shape because you are breaking the vertical plane twice, each time halving the sap and slowing the whole tree down,” says Chris. “There is less chance of one limb taking over, or of the whole thing going out of control.”