Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Evolution of our Living Fence & Espalier Design

Deb has been in love with living fences ever since our first time at our friend Sue's house.  Sue Oberle is who we used to buy all of our seedlings from when she was in that line of business.  She has a wonderful apple tree that has been trained into being a fence.  And Deb wouldn't let our next garden construction phase be designed without this being included.

I completely got the concept of a living fence.  Mostly.  The practice dates back to Egyptians in 1400 BC, throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, and in Colonial America.  The pruning of living fences was considered a secret art that was passed from generation to generation.

There are several reasons for building living fences.  They are useful as borders between areas of gardens or farms.  They allow for productivity in small areas.  And, when done against a wall, they can benefit from the heat radiating from the wall to extend seasons, or induce flowering or ripening.

If you are interested in the history of living fences, as well as detailed information about how to prune them, I would recommend the website at Colonial Sense.  It's rich with detailed information on this subject.

The living fence I saw in my mind.
So, in my mind, I pictured a tree where the branches that are forward and aft are removed, and the remaining branches are trained resulting in horizontal bars bearing fruit.  My primary concern was what would happen when the branches reached the length that put them at the edge of the planter.

Would we cut them off, and then the branches would just get thicker and thicker?  Would they bear fruit in this condition?  And what stops the tree from growing upwards?  Don't I end up with a big thick trunk and very little foliage.

I had a difficult time visualizing how to give Deb her dream, and still have a functional fruit tree 10-20 years from now.  And, on top of that, making something that wasn't going to look like a disaster at the end of every garden picture.  It IS about the pictures, when the history books are written.

In our case, we are looking to:

1. Create more fruit variety in our garden overall.  We currently have a Golden Delicious and Jonathan Apple tree.  We are thinking of adding other Apple varieties, and perhaps a Cherry.

The West End View: Isn't it missing something on the far side?
2. Create a visual backdrop for the garden elements, when viewed from the West.  When you walk around the corner from the driveway, it's what defines the back side of the garden.

3. Create a visual barrier between us and our nearest next door neighbor.  We have a weird situations, where the fence between us is about waist high due to the drainage that runs between our properties, and their back porch is so close, it feels like we are almost on top of one another.  This will help create privacy for both yards when we are in this garden.

Now, besides the general concept, and the location, we didn't really discuss much detail about the tree or trees.  We had built the East end of the Garden to hold this living fence, and intentionally avoided any dividers to make one continuous planter that was bent on an angle, creating two planting zones.

Future unfinished home of our Living Fence, aka an Espalier
In fact, deciding between 1 or 2 trees was the primary decision in my mind.  I just figured that there was one advantage to putting a single tree, right at the bend, and a different advantage to putting one on each side.  I kept oscillating in my mind.

By putting one at the corner, I was imagining that I could have the maximum length branches, and that was a good thing.  But, because one side is longer than the other, it would be kind of a weird tree.  One side would get thicker than the other, as the longer side would still be stretching itself out.

But the downside of the one tree design was the trellis.  It would require creating four posts, with some sort of cris-crossing of lines or wires right near the trunk of the tree.  It just sounded like it would look forced.  Idea nixed, for the moment. Or was it?

The two tree design made the trellis easier for sure.  It meant we could put one post in the each end, and then one in the center.  That made sense, but then there was almost the same issue with the other design - one tree would be substantially larger than the other.  But, then that could be solved by having one apple, then one cherry.

Time to bring Deb in to help settle the matter.  Well, sort of.  In reality, all I did was infect her with my oscillating thoughts.  It was a bit frustrating for both of us.

The diagram that opened our eyes
That is when Deb found a site on the Internet the explained that the living fence we were looking for was called and Espalier.  She printed out a page showing all sorts of designs.  It was like suddenly moving from 2D to 3D.  Okay, not so dramatic, but still.  It opened our eyes.

Given the freedom to combine multiple trees to create patterns suddenly made me a painter with living branches, and suddenly, I could create just about anything I could imagine.  This could be good.

So, with the freedom to plant multiple dwarf varieties of fruit-bearing trees, and then bend them into patterns, it solved the problem of how thick the branches would become to a degree, because the pattern could evolve over time.  And, the space could be more easily filled in the first few years - not waiting until we are on our deathbeds to see the final product!
What Espalier will appear here?

By the time the planters were completed, we realized that in order to do this right, we might need to shop around a bit in our local nurseries, and perhaps even wait for the end-of-season sales that always come in August and September - a GREAT time to plant trees and save some bucks.

In the meantime, we may choose to just fill the area with soil, and grow some watermelons, pumpkins, or something else we don't normally do.  It's one of the fun things about new garden acreage - you can use a season to kick the can down the road until you make a final decision.

What do you think we should do?  Please comment!

1 comment:

  1. I am thinking about doing this same thing and just saw one today at the Garfield conservatory in Chicago in the monet garden. I asked the gardener there and she said it is not as hard as some people say and it is fun and takes up little room. Besides it being beautiful, and elegant, your fruit will be able to get sun and air from all directions while you get to putter and tinker with them like a bonsai tree. It is such a great idea for a small space I hope you do it!!!! dwarf varieties are best and make sure you get 2 if that is what is called for. good luck I am doing mine this fall if I can wait that long!