Tuesday, September 25, 2012

How to Establish an Espalier & a Sweeney Todd Encounter with Firethorn

Pre-Haircut: Hort team working on espalier 

I included an Espalier in a favorite garden design client’s transitional side garden room about ten years ago, no doubt, for it’s expected drama. 

The espalier design concept packs a punch in less space. 

While the process can take years, depending on how quickly the plant grows, it is handsome garden art throughout the maturation or development of the garden installation.
According to the lexic, espalier is “latticework used to shape or train the branches of a tree or shrub into a two-dimensional ornamental or useful design, as along a wall or fence.   
Espaliered trees are often managed for decades.

Historically, populations planted and grew espalier in countries that revered their food and didn’t have space for growing fruiting and stone fruit trees. 
For example, the French, Italians, Egyptians and Japanese, to name a few, grow apple, peach, fig, and plum trees along house or barn walls where the tiered, flat tree stems produce delicious fresh fruit without requiring an orchard’s acreage for the full tree petticoat.
Of course, these same country’s premiere gardeners and horticulturists couldn’t leave well enough alone – and before too long were “torturing” their trees into ever more grand and complicated patterns!

In the United States, our curse and blessing remains that we have so much space.
Espalier never really took off in America for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the space issue. 
There was also a perception that espalier was a “fancy-pants” kind of horticulture – (mon dieu -- it even sounds fancy-pants French!)
Not meant for the ethnic, emerging immigrant population here and in the burgeoning suburbs. Best left to the old-European aristocracy and the botanical gardens.

Truth be told, espalier is rather easy-care, sustainable, garden practice we should revive as a more common way to grow fruit trees and enjoy the beauty and bounty of growing our own food.
And there remains a place for the ornamental espalier too, adding unexpected design wonder and awe.   Plants as art, the espalier is strikingly beautiful, especially because admirers recognize and appreciate the patience and love that goes into nurturing this “two-dimensional” tree.
The espalier has ben called one of the most impressive visual achievements the craft of gardening has to offer.

Typically, you will need to spend an hour or so two or three times a year trimming away wayward stems and shoots and encouraging the plant in the directions that please you.
The best time to prune is in late spring after the plant flowers or in the late summer/early autumn. 

The plant material I chose for the now decade-old espalier is pyracantha, commonly referred to as Firethorn.  With an emphasis on the “thorn” part of its name, it’s no surprise that the pruning is more of a gladiator’s match up!

I selected the pyracantha angustifolia or Firethorn (in the rose family) because of its hardiness and strength, after all. 
But also for its all-season interest and a Mediterranean – inspired look. 
It is good for native pollinators, especially birds and bees. 
It also tolerates alkaline soils that dominate foundation soils of suburban homes.
We had friends who used it as a “living fence” fronting the barrier fence that enclosed their pool. It was like viewing an ever-changing art tableau as the plant changed its wardrobe accessories, if you will, from lacy white to glowing, fiery red.

I wanted the spring white flowers – commonly referred to at the “bridal veil.”  It’s pretty and light – almost ethereal -- which is saying a lot and belies the tough-talking reputation of the Firethorn.
The orange berries in the late summer and autumn are like a top-heavy necklace over the purple caryopteris and blue grass that bow at the foot of the espalier in its bed, lending the color palette of that Mediterranean look.
The espalier leads the eye -- paralleling the seashell path.  And the horizontal lines draw the eye onward to the incredible bay beyond – and link the viewer to that part of the “borrowed view.”

The stem patterns are limitless.  You can direct or train the stems to grow into any shape or style you want. 
The various traditional ones include Candelabra, Belgian, U, Fan or horizontal. I chose the latter for the directional, triggered element of movement. 
And beauty, of course.

Setting up Espalier and Care

For the first few years, the firethorns -- four of them -- were allowed to just grow – like a child – it was allowed to be carefree…
The central trunk was surely established after perhaps four or five years, which might have been too long a time – we started the firethorn onto a formal, constructed framework.

The first team to do this was comprised of experts who were or had been students at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) and its School of Professional Horticulture (SOPH)
It was a working, paid, learning assignment.
The students were already hort magicians, dedicated to their passion for the world of plants. They respect good garden design and in this case, the work that would go into making the espalier a remarkable and sophisticated joy to behold.
All of that team, by the way, has gone on to become directors, managers and working arborists and horticultural professionals at the Parks or botanical gardens in the New York metro area.

For that first framework, the team used wire trellis and aluminum poles. The wire stretched the length of the house that is the backdrop for the espalier and the mechanism to create and manage the space intervals of the branches – or lateral buds that in turn create the pattern.  Here that pattern was the horizontal shape.  From stem to stern – approximately 38 feet.  And it is almost 13 feet tall.

This framework worked for a number of years until a few things happened: the plant material got heavier as it got older, putting extra pressure on the wire supports; and a squirrel’s nest and babies added weight to one are. 
At one juncture, this combination caused a cratering.
While there have been lovely bird’s nests perched on the tiers, the squirrel’s nest might have added weight, especially with all that scampering they do…

We tied and wired it back to rights just in time. 
There is a rather funny aside story I will share with about this chapter of the espalier.

From heavy duty rosarian gloves to opera gloves

Never thought those two kinds of hand ornaments would be, ahem, joined at the thumb, did you?

I was gently pruning – and I do mean gently – almost holding my breath. It was the year the last quadrant was sagging a bit. 
I wore long, over-the-elbow, heavy-duty rosarian gloves for this venture. 
While snipping, all was good.
The “crime” must have occurred, as best as I can piece together, while I was merely holding the branch up so that my garden assistant could better tie the lateral branch on to the wire.  I had given her the rosarian gloves to use as she was in the thick of things.
I changed to standard garden gloves. Further, I wore two layers of long sleeve shirts and a jacket.
I gave the encounter no thought.

Later, after heading back into town, to enjoy an NYBG lecture as part of their ongoing Fall Lecture series, me and two favorite garden and hort friends were enjoying an after-lecture supper when one of the ladies points to my arms and exclaims, “What is going on with your arms?!”
To my horror, it was a bit of Sweeney Todd mixed with some religious crucifixion condition. 
Besides some blood, the arms were swelling up.

Well.  Needless to say – I called my dermatologist the next day and he removed thorn shrapnel with a high tech eyepiece guiding him to the itsy, bitsy shavings that were embedded the length of both sides of my arm. I was sent home with a prescription, too.  Sigh..

I knew it was the plant’s adaptation. 
No big thorns had strafed me. Rather it was the plant protecting itself.

Still, I had a wedding to go to that Saturday and didn’t want to have to listen to whispers noting what they might imagine as “abuse,” nor to dominate a conversation pod with that aforementioned Sweeney Todd look.

So, I determined to secure some sexy, long opera gloves to wear and turn a negative into a plus. 
After some rather unexpected research, I found a designer who makes the gloves.  The big department stores and boutiques came up empty for me. They said ladies don’t wear dress gloves anymore…
I went up to the garment district and had a ball buying no less than a dozen vintage – and new gloves. Long, short and 7/8’s length.
When the two Vogue magazine stylists arrive to pick up their leopard print velvet, fingerless kitten or half-gloves, I discovered the glove maker had made two sets. I grabbed the second pair. Big score.

The other big score was that post-wedding; my girlfriend gave me her coveted and glamorous evening and dress gloves that had belonged to her mother who had just passed away.  This was a gift of love.  And I am still weepy when I think about being the steward of this glove cache…

And the best part of that glove gift?  One pair was still sitting in their plastic store bag with cardboard fitted into each finger. Frozen in time. 
The name on the bag was:  Duchess.  It was destiny…

In the end, I don’t blame the firethorn.  I tried to look at the escapade as not only a learning experience but also one that brought joy and love and extended garden glamour.

Next up – how we resolved the Espalier escalation and brought it to a secure, safe place, with an improved, groomed look. (how-to videos and images)

In fact, its Hollywood-like splendor evokes that “I’m ready for my close-up” moment to the extent that the garden clients installed outdoor lighting so that neighbors, passerby’s and garden lovers can admire its pin-up glamour all through the night just like on the red carpet…