Gardeners the world over have used this ancient technique to grow fat, juicy pears without gardens for hundreds of years.
Growing pears without a garden is tough.
I bet there’s not a day goes by that you don’t think about what it’s going to be like when you have enough space to grow your own. One day, you keep telling yourself.
What if I told you that one day could be to-day?
Gardeners the world over have used the ancient technique of Espalier to grow delicious pears for hundreds of years. They’ve produced abundant crops of pears without much space and very little soil.
Pronounced ess-pal-ee-ay, espalier is an ancient agricultural practice that you can use to train woody plants to grow flat against walls or fences.
Espaliers were common in Roman courtyards as decorative features for walls. Nowadays, you mostly find them in Grand Old English Country Walled Gardens – posh gardens – and hardly ever in backyards.
But they weren’t just grown for their good looks. They were also grown to produce lots of delicious fruit.
Whatever shape you need, Espalier trees can be trained to accommodate. Anything goes. The only limit is your imagination. Here’s a few examples.
When an Espalier is grown so close to a wall like this, they also benefit from the heat absorbed by the wall. Heat absorbed during the day is released later, when temperatures drop.
This amazing phenomenon is how you go about creating a micro-climate within your backyard and how you can raise the ambient temperature by a couple of degrees.
Whilst an increased temperature is not always beneficial, in the case of most fruit trees in my climate (maritime), it most certainly is. A fantastic book about creating micro-climates is Pushing the Zone if you’d like to learn more.
That all sounds great, but there’s still one problem. Where do you plant it if you’ve got no soil?
How to Grow Pear Trees in Containers
Whilst commonly found in soil, it is possible to grow fruit trees in very large containers too. This makes them perfect for small spaces.
However, there are some cautionary tales to consider when growing fruit trees in pots.
For instance, potted fruit trees need a lot of water. A few weeks ago, I put together a guide containing some water recycling ideas for the urban grower which will definitely help you with this.
Secondly, trees need good access to nutrients to remain strong and healthy.
In a normal garden this is achieved with a deep and complex root system. You can’t duplicate this root system in a container, but what you can do is plant the tree into a root pruning pot. This will encourage more roots and a healthier, more structurally stable tree.
Finally, just in case of emergencies, you may need to tie your tree to the wall for added protection against high winds. The larger the pot and the shorter the tree, the less likely it is you’ll need to do this.
My Louise Bonne of Jersey Espalier Pear Tree
In my case, I didn’t have the space to plant a pear tree in the traditional sense. I did have a bit of ‘dead space’ near the fence line though that looked perfect for an espalier.
For my own pear, I wanted something unusual. Something that had great taste and heritage, and that my friends and family may never have tried before. After a bit of research, I came across the Louise Bonne of Jersey pear tree from Walcot Organic Nursery and bought one.
I admit I got lucky with my planting spot, but if I hadn’t had anywhere to plant it in the ground, I’d have grown it up against our south-facing wall in a 30L Root Pouch fabric container.
Choosing the Right Tree
Any type of fruit tree can be trained into an Espalier. However, it’s probably worth taking a good look at the space where you want to grow it before you dig your money out and splash it on the first tree you see.
The main reason for taking your time with the decision is to ensure you get the right tree for the height you desire.
In my case, I only wanted it to grow just above the fence line – so about 6/7ft. I was planting directly into the soil, so I needed to make sure that the type of tree I bought could actually grow that high.
The best thing you can do is work out your total desired height before asking your nursery for a recommendation. Tell them what you’re trying to achieve and take their advice.
On the other hand, I don’t mind taking questions if you want to ask me. You can do the comment thing below, email or tweet me. I’d probably be most responsive to tweets but your problem may be bigger than 140 characters 🙂
How to Train an Espalier Pear Tree
Before I take you down this rabbit hole, it is worth mentioning that you can buy pre-trained Espalier fruit trees. They usually do cost substantially more than normal trees but can be worth it in exchange for the time they save.
Now for the fun stuff.
Which one of these would look most awesome in your backyard?
In my case, I’m going for the straightforward “horizontal pattern” and I’ll probably grow it to four tiers.
You’re going to need some heavy gauge wire to train your tree. Either tied into dedicated posts at either side of your tree or tied into some keyhole screws in your fence or wall.
I’ve tied keyhole screws into fence posts at either side of my tree. My fence panels are 6ft long and I have my tree planted in front of the central fence post. My keyhole screws are tied into fence posts to either side of the central post.
1st Year Pruning
My Louise Bonne of Jersey was a 2 year old tree when I bought it. It was about 120cm high in total, with a few shoots starting to sprout on both sides of the “trunk”.
Trees are like conduits of energy. Each limb, shoot, leaf and flower draw on that energy. The more of these there are, the more energy is drawn and spread throughout the tree. When a tree is pruned, that energy is diverted to what remains.
The goal in the 1st year pruning (training) of my pear tree is to build structure and divert all energy into the lower tier. I want to encourage lateral branches to grow and form the first tier and I want all of the tree’s energy to help that happen.
This means that everything else needs to be pruned.
I took about 80cm off the 2yr old tree.
When to Prune
The “right time” to prune any fruit tree is in the winter when the tree is dormant. In my case, I pruned this in April, just as the tree was beginning to come to life for the Spring.
New shoots started to appear down the length of the remaining “trunk” after about a week. You can see one here (opposite the Dandelion) where a little red tip is appearing.
I’ll be training these two as my first tier lateral branches.
The idea is to train the 1st year laterals out first. This will allow them to build structural strength before I train up the new vertical leader and second tier laterals.
I will repeat in the 2nd year by pruning back to second tier laterals. This will help them build structure before letting the third and fourth tiers grow in the following years.
The progress should proceed something like this.
Growing & Harvesting
As you can see, it’s probably going to be 4 or 5 years before I get to pick my first pear. It’ll be a long and exciting wait, but 4 or 5 years is better than never, right?
In fact I read a great quote today, which I think sums up this experiment perfectly.
Pears for heirs – so said because it usually takes pears so long to bear fruit!
What will happen however, is due to the care and pruning the tree will receive in the early years, it will produce very well when it does. I’m expecting to have a pear abundance in 5 years time, and I’m seriously looking forward to sharing it with my family and friends.
I hope this post has given you ideas on how you can do the same – no matter how small your backyard is.
There is one particularly scary thing about this whole experiment though.
My son, who is 6 this year, will be 11 when we eat our first pears!
Remember, this is just a tiny snapshot of the small-space solutions and resilient ideas I’m testing out. If you sign up to my email list, I’ll send you everything I have in one handy, accessible completely free Urban Grower’s Handbook (pdf format).
It’s my goal to keep the Urban Grower’s Handbook updated with all the latest solutions that will make your life as an Urban Grower more efficient, cost-effective and productive.