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.