How to Summer Prune an Espalier

Yesterday, I spent the whole day on an Espalier Pruning day at Painswick Rococo garden. It was great fun and I learned a ton about how Apples grow and how to maintain an espalier.

It was also a gorgeous setting in which to learn, with a central kitchen garden surrounded by hundreds of espalier Apples and Pear and a separate orchard including Medlers and Yellow Plums (which I had a sneaky taste of).

Thanks to Chris Hitchcock (the head gardener, on the right) and Bill Whitehead (an Apple and Pear expert, on the left) I now feel super confident about summer pruning my own espalier apple tree. Thanks also to Paul Hervey-Brookes for being the perfect host. Lastly, thanks to my wonderful under-gardener for buying the course for me and looking after Jackson for the whole day so that I could go!

So what did I learn?

Now is the time to start summer pruning Apple an Pear espaliers. Aim for the end of July to mid August. The reason you Summer prune is to restrict growth (after all an espalier is a restricted form) and to let in light to help the fruit ripen. The light also encourages buds for the following season, so everyone’s a winner!

Here are Four Steps to Summer Pruning Espaliers

1.Chop Down All Top Growth

Before you start pruning your espalier might look like this. Lots of long wippy shoots growing upwards. You should cut all the top growth down by about half so that you can see more clearly what you’re doing. Leave two long shoots unpruned, that are growing from the central stem. The reason you do this is to draw the sap upwards through the central part of the tree which reduces the amount of regrowth at the ends of the branches.

It should start to look a bit like this.

2. Prune Each Branch Three Leaves Up From the Basal Leaves

Inspect each of the branches that you’ve cut down by half. Find the basal leaf cluster (these are the clutch of leaves that are around the base of this year’s growth. In the photo below, the basal leaves are the three leaves coming from the base of the branch. Then the real leaves are the three after that (one is pointing backwards). You would make your cut above the third.

Angle your cut so that it slants away from the leaf – but ideally points away from the tree (so that the water runs away from the leaf and the tree). Don’t make your cut too angled and also not too close to the bottom of the leaf (as below).

Continue to work through the tree doing the same for each branch.

5. Dead, Diseased, Dying, Weak and Wayward

Next inspect the tree and take out all branches that fit the following description – DDDWW (Dead, Diseased, Dying, Weak and Wayward). Quite a few of the trees that I was pruning had Canker, which was rotting away various branches. I was told to just cut them off (since they don’t spray fungicide at Painswick).

4. The Finished Espalier

When you’re finished you should have a perfectly trimmed espalier, with lots of light getting in and with two wippy stems protruding from the top.

Sorry this ended up being so long but I needed to get all that I had learned down in one place. Hope it helps you out when you come to Summer prune your espalier Apples or Pears.

20 Comments on “How to Summer Prune an Espalier

  1. Even after all your lovely photos it is still a mystery to me, I think I would have to go on a day course in the future when I finally have my stepover trees in situ and when the are due to be pruned so the info would be fresh in my mind.

  2. What a lovely gift to give to you. So many people get stuck for gift ideas, looking for something that comes in a box, and never think about things like this, which are ideal if that is what you like doing. Sounds like you’ve got a good apple there (hahaha!!).

    I’m sure it will be a great help to a lot of people, although I have to be honest, the bit with the leaves lost me completely as I couldn’t tell the difference betweent the two sets of leaves – but I don’t have an apple tree yet so I don’t need to worry about it. Maybe if you have a different photo, or one from a different angle it might help or be clearer to tell the two sets apart??? The rest was clear enough though.

    Your step by step instructions are great and I am eternally grateful to my Uncle Richard for telling me about this site.

    Have fun pruning your own tree. I hope it gives you lots of fruit for your all your hard work and dilligence!

  3. I am delighted, as I know everyone at the Rococo Garden is, that you enjoyed the day course with us. Your pictures really capture the hands on feel of the day and are fantastically detailed. I particularly like the picture of Chris & Bill and I have a feeling it will be one for the gardeners tea room wall!

    All the best

  4. This is so helpful, thanks. I would love to attend something like this, but such offerings are rare in my part of the U.S. This little tutorial will be a big help when I get started with an espalier project.

  5. Many thanks for this article. I inherited a badly overgrown espaliered pear when I moved here 8 years ago. It was no longer growing just along the wall where it was planted, and also suffered from a recurring problem I later identified as pear rust mite.

    After a few years working with what I had, in vain, I cut the whole tree back to the trunk – kill or cure – and have been training the new growth since. This year, the tree is once more the full width of the supporting wall (but neatly, now!), and it is the first that I have seen a crop of pears since cutting back.

    I have been doing more or less as you described, but more crudely – i.e. cutting off the top growth at the base, and not leaving the two stems. Thanks to your piece, this year’s trim can be a little more elegant.

  6. Thank you so much! I just planted this season 4 apple espalliers (one appears dead already! though : -( ) Thanks for your great tips and I will try to do my best to keep the other three – and 4ths replacement in top form!

    great blog as always.

  7. This is such a useful post! Thanks. Just today I was at the Van Dusen city park and saw beautifully espalier apples. Synchronicity!

  8. Its always seen as a dark art, pruning – it must be wonderful to have had a full day of learning all about it! You are now the master of all thing pruning (be it espalliers or not!)

  9. In my world, everything would be espaliered. This is a delight to behold. Thanks so much.

  10. Great post, great blog. I’m sending a link to my mum so she can tackle her apples this month and will bookmark it for when I have my own apples.

  11. Hi from the United States,

    Love your blog. Am a bit confused, are you calling apple trees espaliers? Or are those specific kinds of apples? I live in Maryland and have a young apple tree that just had two apples (that is all because it is young). I was informed it is best to prune in the fall due to the dormancy stage of the trees. Is that the wrong information or?

    Confused in the land of star spangled banner,


  12. The info on the esppalier training is great. I’m wanting to start from scratch. So I would appreciate some dimensions. If the trees can attain a 20 ft spread, do you plant the trees 20 feet apart? Or something less, so that the leaders can approach a nearby main stem?
    Would it be wise to try for three laterals, one at two feet above the soil, the second at 4 feet above the soil, and the third at 6 ft above the soil? Or would it be better to have the horizontals closer than 2 feet apart?
    Wouldn’t it be better to be a couple of feet away from a wall, so that you could go behind the tree, to prune, and to do maintenance on the wall?
    Thanks for your effort!!

  13. Pingback: Espalier Summer Pruning « Hillwards

  14. This seems to be an old thread but may still be useful to people like me looking for help in pruning a hopelessly overgrown espelier apple. It gave us the confidence (mis-placed or not) to have a go last autumn – far too late but we had finally got some information, the time and the courage and got to the point that there was nothing much to lose. So taking our courage and pruners in both hands we started by reducing the top growth by half apart from two shoots in our case growing near to the central stem. Once you have done this you can see much better what you are up against. By the time we did it, the leaves had gone so we guessed each branch by length rather than number of non-basal leaves. This is not ideal. We then did the dead, diseased, dying, weak and wayward thing and by this time you really feel as though you are getting somewhere. The tree was originally trained more or less East/West so anything pointing North or South got the chop. We also removed nearby growth from a self seeded holly, ivy etc to maximise air and light. It looked so much better but we were fairly sure we might have finished it off especially when it seemed a bit late budding this Spring, Imagine the joy when it burst into life about three weeks ago. Possibly no apple crop this year? I’ll try to let you know. Any way thanks for a very accessible blog which gave us the confidence needed. I have photos but not sure how to attach them.

  15. Thanks for this information. I looked at the espalier pear in our garden today and realised that it was getting very ‘bushy’. I shall use these instructions to prune it – I just hope the squirrels won’t take the fruit when they are more visible!! I think I will have to put some netting over so that my husband can have his conference pears this year.

  16. American gardeners tend to be baffled by Old World urge to over-work all the plants in the garden. Forcing rhubarb and espaliering fruit trees seems brutal and needless. Our climates are (typically) far harsher than yours, we don’t resort to such tactics, yet we still produce bountiful harvests.

    I wonder why we gave them up?

  17. I think the answer to Lisa’s comment might be that we don’t have so much space ! In my response of 14/4/11 (above), I promised to report on this year’s crop. It’s turned out to be quite good but only on the two long shoots. Whether that’s because I pruned it back so severely so late I don’t know. A fellow Master Composter suggested that sap will always rise to the highest point. Anyway the apples are good and ripening well. I’m much more careful to collect windfalls quickly. I completed this year’s summer pruning at the right time (early August) and it looks great. The plan for the Autumn is to do some structural pruning – remove the two long shoots and try to retrain some of the missing and shortened branches. Then hope for a much more widely distributed blossom next Spring. Thanks again for giving us the confidence to sort this overgrown monster out and start to make it into a thing of beauty once more.

  18. Davis I am where you were last year having inherited a very overgrown espalier apple that’s almost more of a fan now,

    I have redone the wires and got it back into some sort of order but , like you , I fear I have done for next years crop but – looking forward to the year after – thanks for sharing your experiences

  19. And David as well – my fingers are sore from pruning :)