Up against the wall: That phrase usually carries a sense of anxiety or exhaustion with it. Not so in the horticultural world. What you are looking at in the photograph is an example of espalier. It is a fruiting pear, literally up against a wall — a brick wall.
Anyone who has traveled McGilvra Boulevard a block north of Madison Street and looked to the west has, no doubt, seen this pear against its pristine white background. It is, to this gardener’s eye, the finest example of espalier ever seen, anywhere. During the stretch of holidays surrounding the winter solstice, it is densely outlined in white lights, one of the (if not the most) iconic symbols of the holiday season in Madison Park. Sparkling in the darkness of winter, it literally stops traffic.
The tree came with the house when Norm and Mary Ives bought the property. The house had been built in 1948. All connections with the original owners have vanished, so any oral history of the plant is lost. Guessing from the girth of its trunk and the heft of its horizontal branches, this pear is 50 or more years old and has been, quite obviously, meticulously maintained all through its life.
“We loved the aesthetic of the tree against the white brick from the moment we saw it,” Norm said. “It was later, after we moved in, that we realized we are now the stewards of something special. We could not tell you how many folks stop and take pictures.”
The word “espalier” is French, referring, in the 17th century, to a trellis or form on which a plant is trained to grow in a highly controlled two-dimensional pattern, going up and wide, but not out. Later the word came to represent the entire horticultural technique and the particular espaliered plant itself.
The system, which can be traced to ancient Rome, is as practical as it is ornamental. In a small garden, any number of woody plants can be trained in this way, bringing the beauty of foliage and flower but consuming little outdoor living space. An espaliered fruit tree trained on a south or west facing wall, where it gets an abundance of sunlight, can produce copious amounts of apples, pears, figs or peaches on limbs that are easy to reach and tend.
It takes a minimum of two years to get an espalier going. If the idea appeals to you, this month would be a great time to start. Just be certain that you keep the plants deeply watered through the warm months ahead. Start with a one or five-gallon sized plant. Put it in the ground next to the wall, out far enough that as the plant grows and the trunk thickens, it will have the necessary space.
Espalier can take many geometric, or even abstract, shapes. The tiered, horizontal T shape you see in the picture is a common and relatively easy shape to achieve. As the plant stretches up the first year, take note of the side branches you want to cultivate and snip the others back to the trunk. You can use twine, wire or hooks in the wall to keep these limbs growing straight out at a 90-degree angle. When the plant reaches the height you want, cut the vertical growth off just above the top tier of limbs. It may take three or more years to reach the desired height, all the while you’ll be watering and grooming. Nip back unwanted shoots as they emerge. Application of a balanced fertilizer or a heavy top dressing of compost will speed healthy growth. Once you’ve achieved the shape you want, it is a process of removing the shoots, called “suckers,” which emerge along the trunk and horizontal branches. The pear pictured was once managed by a contracted gardening company. Now, Norm does the job himself. He doesn’t cultivate this pear for the fruit. So, he does nothing to encourage or preserve emerging pears.
“From October through March, I basically don’t do anything,” he said. “We have a professional lighting company do the Christmas lights. When the pear starts leafing out, I go out monthly and remove the suckers.”
He speaks of the process as if it were meditation. Once established, this is all that espalier really requires. But it involves patience, vigilance and consistency.
Ah ha! Therein lies a life lesson, another one of the many gifts of the garden. Be patient, vigilant and consistent, and you’ll likely be able to handle being up against a wall beautifully and fruitfully.