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Perhaps you've never heard the term espalier, a technique for training a tree or other plant against a trellis, but examples abound in Sonoma County. These range from ornamental vines on fences to fruit trees set in glorious patterns. And most every vineyard is a type of espalier, too.

As young trees grow, they're trained into flattened, virtually two-dimensional shapes by a complementary process of pruning and adherence to a trellis of stakes and horizontal wires. This process can be used to create gorgeous patterns or shapes, such as a candelabra or an interwoven design.

The technique may date to Roman times and became an art form starting in the Renaissance, when concepts of beauty came to the fore. But there are many practical reasons to grow espaliers, especially fruit-producing ones, says Sean McNeil, owner of Apple Art Espalier in Sebastopol.

"Everything is easily accessible," he says. "It's just an easier way to grow fruit." That's the main attraction for some homeowners who cultivate espaliers; for others, it's the architectural element, McNeil says.

It's also a way to provide a tree with more of what it needs. For example, if a pear tree needs more heat to ripen its fruit, especially in areas with cool coastal influences, it can be set against a wall that reflects warmth toward the tree. These microclimates can be used, for example, to shield a tree from high winds that could knock its blossoms off.

Some people hire landscapers to develop their espaliers; others grow their own. Though he's not teaching any upcoming workshops, McNeil says classes are a good way to learn, and he highly recommends the book "Pruning and Training" by Christopher Brickell and David Joyce, for amateur gardeners interested in growing espaliers.

McNeil's moment of epiphany came some 15 years ago, when he was working at a nursery that had tastings of fruit from its trees. McNeil would cut some fruit from standard trees, "and then I'd go to the espalier yard, and the same variety growing in the espalier yard would have a bigger fruit, less disease problems and better quality.

"I said, &‘I get it now.' This is a way to grow a higher-quality fruit; there are not as many per tree, but the fruit that the tree makes is of a higher quality. That really got me interested in espaliers."

Among the other benefits of espaliers are the aesthetic pleasure of the patterns — for example, the interwoven diamond pattern of a Belgian fence. You can fit more espalier trees (compared to standard ones) on a small lot, McNeil says. And you don't have to climb a ladder to care for them.

Gardeners who seek to cultivate healthy espaliers can't be sentimental, McNeil said. They have to be ready to cut tree growth, even in summer, and snuff out buds.

"This is the hardest thing," he said. "People are their own worst enemy because they're afraid to cut, afraid to make a mistake. You buy a tree that's 5 feet tall and you have to cut it down to 18 inches. We feel like we just lost our investment, but from a full cut like that you get a lot more growth."

Pruning away the top bud sends a signal to the tree to grow out from the center, and these branches can be trained along a trellis. For a tree to reach three horizontal tiers typically takes three years, McNeil says.

Espalier trees produce fruit faster than standard trees because pulling the branches down sends a signal to the tree to bear fruit. So espaliers can bear fruit crops in about three years, whereas standard trees typically take five to seven years.

For espaliers grown along a low fence or wall, the most suitable trees are often dwarfs or semi-dwarfs, McNeil said. Yet he prefers larger, more majestic trees wherever possible.

"I find espaliers to be most amazing when they're taller than me. But these don't fit design-wise in every area," he said. "If a fence is 6 feet, it would look funny if the trellis is 7 feet."

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