Espal-yay!

I was staring at the saplings, just two weeks in the ground. Shears in hand, I knew what I had to do.

My victims were three little pear trees. After weeks of phone calls and driving to area nurseries, we couldn’t find any trees small enough for what we wanted to do; everything was already 2 or 3 years old in pots. So we ended up ordering the trees online. Two of them were just sticks with roots and the other had a robust cluster of leaves, but they were all too tall for our purposes.

We wanted to grow the fruit trees right against the house, via espalier. That means, in essence, we wanted to hyper-control the trees’ growth using trellising. In theory, this would let us generate a higher yield than an untended tree and use a tiny footprint in the sunniest unused spot of our south-facing side yard.1

Already, I’d built the trellising using round fence posts and strong high-tensile wire attached to eye bolts. And when I wasn’t happy with the sag that developed in the wires when the posts dried, shifted and settled, I amended the construction with turnbuckles on the wires so I could tension them up if there’s more movement. The first horizontal line, which would eventually hold the lowest branches of the pears, is 16 inches above ground.

These shortest of these saplings was 36 inches.

Which is why I was sitting there with the shears, ready, but not quite willing, to perform a little snip-snip.2

The fruit

Jenn did the pear research and selected the trees, because she’s the scientist. Though some pears will self-pollinate, some require not only a second tree, but a second type of pear that blooms around the same time. The University of Georgia’s extension office has a great little guide for our state that was invaluable. Check with your own extension agent for your state and zone.

What we put in the ground were:

  • A Baldwin pear
  • A Hood pear
  • A Shinko pear — a variety of Asian pear that’s still considered experimental in terms of whether it will cross-pollinate with the other varieties. But most folks think it does. (Details as we get them.)

The espalier

With espalier, starting from the ground, you let the trunk split into just three branches. You tie two of these off to the first wire and train them to run horizontally along that wire. You let the third branch shoot straight up to the next line, where you allow two more side shoots to run on that line, while the middle shoot continues up until you reach the top of your trellising. We built four lines over 6 feet of exposed posts. (For more on doing your own espalier, look to the pros. Stark Bros. nursery in Louisiana, Missouri3, has great advice, including this very necessary sermon: “Take a deep breath and top the center trunk by making a cut about 1-2 inches above the first-tier wire, right above a bud.”)

We got lucky with the Hood pear. It was clustered into four branches just below the first line. So we could just gently bend and tie two branches. The third branch was both tall enough to reach the second and already split into two shoots there, so we trained those too. The fourth branch we’re letting go straight up toward the next line. This effectively puts that tree two years ahead of where we thought we’d be starting from.

There was no getting around snipping off the other two, though.

The only mitigating factor was, I wasn’t even sure they’d survived the shipping. Zombies aside, you can’t kill what’s already dead, I reasoned. And if they are alive, it’s better to cut now, before they sprout new leaves on the sections I knew would have to go away.

“I’m doing it,” I told Jenn.

And then I did.

‘Not dead yet’

For a couple weeks we’d stare at the snubbed-off sticks in the ground, occasionally flexing the ends to see if they were brittle. They seemed to be pliable (and thus, possibly alive).

And then they exploded with leaves!

Indeed — be it from the trimming, or a new sunny home, or the amended soil, or some combination of all these things — the new little Baby Groots are thriving. The two non-Asian varieties are doing great along the first wire, and the Baldwin is quickly catching up to the Hood and is already up to the third line. The Shinko seems to grow more slowly, but even its lowest side branches are trained on the first wire, so we’re mostly ahead of schedule for hitting a new crosswire each year. We hope to collect some fruit in Year 3.

Meanwhile, by dumb luck we’ll actually get some food from the site this year.

Not long after planting the pears, we had several tomato plants and a squash vine pop out of the ground there.4 One of the tomatoes is already fruiting, and the squash is full of flowers and buds (and happily trellised on the third wire for now, since the pears aren’t using that real estate yet). Can’t wait to see what kind of squash is growing from seeds hardy enough to survive cooking in the compost for a year.

That we’ve picked a good spot to grow food — well, that’s apearant.


 

Footnotes:

1“Yard,” such that it is. Our side yard is about 6 feet wide and already is home to a homemade wood rack and a blackberry trellis across from where we planted the pears.

2I’m told the formal term among horticulturalists is “loppemoffame.”

3Yes, I know that that appears to be two states. Talk to the Stark Bros., not me.

4Clearly we need to do a better job of roasting our compost before using it as fertilizer. Generally. This was a happy accident here, though.

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